Embry and are watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Holocaust and the United States. If you think the problems we face are tough now, they were even more foreboding in the 1930s and 40s. The series is deeply disturbing as you would expect and raises a lot of questions about “man’s inhumanity to man.” You wonder what might have happened had the U.S. not joined the fight against Hitler when we did. Would Germany and the Axis powers have won? What would have happened if Germany (or Japan) had developed the atom bomb (and used it) before we did?
There are so many “what ifs” in life, which I have observed on many occasions is often a matter of inches. An inch here and an inch there, and everything is turned upside down. It is not too much to say that if we had waited much longer to join the fray, we in the U.S. could be speaking German today. We tend to look at historical “facts” as a given and predetermined. What if The South had won the Civil War, which would have led to a separate, apartheid country much like South Africa before Nelson Mandela. What if the Civil Rights Movement had not happened? Jim Crow could still be the “law” of the South.
Which brings us to the times we are in today. What if the mRNA vaccine had not been developed just in the nick of time? What would the covid deaths have been? Would anyone want to leave their house? What about all the other medical breakthroughs and advancements? I for one would be a dead duck. I had a fairly severe case of polio in 1952 resulting in a curved spine that looked like the lettering “C.” Without a new operation at the time (1954) called a “spinal fusion,” I would not have lasted past my teenage years. If my polio had occurred five years earlier, I probably would not have made it. And what about the improvements in hearing aides, without which when my hearing disability began in the late 1990s, I would hardly have been able to function? Or knee replacements without which I would hardly be able to walk? I suspect many of us have had health scares or challenges and have gotten through them because of great strides in health care and medical technology. A hundred years ago the outcome would have been very different.
And what about the technology we use that now we take for granted. The list is long—television, computers, the internet, jet planes, cell phones—what if they had never been invented? Can you imagine what life would be like without these things?
And what about politics? What if Trump actually had received more electoral votes than Biden in 2020? What if the January 6 Insurrection had succeeded? What if Ukraine had not put up a fight and the West had not supported their resistance, and Putin had been able to claim victory for Russia, his first step in restoring the Russian Empire?
Of course, we will never know the answer to the what ifs that never happened. This is the stuff for novels and short stories. Nor do we know the answer to the what ifs of the future.
What if Trump wins in 2024? Or if the next president is one of his wannabees like DeSantis, Cruz, or Hawley? Or if the militias try to take over the government? What if we drift away from a democracy to a strongman state?
What if Ukraine falls? What if China becomes greater adversary? What if it attacks Taiwan? What if climate change initiatives are stifled? What if the Greenland ice cap melts? What if covid continues to rage and morphs into a more lethal virus? What if nuclear weapons are actually used (again)? All are possibilities.
What we do know is that we humans—especially we humans of good will– have a big role to play in the outcome. Without heroes and ordinary people in the past who led us away from the Dark Side and ills of slavery, racism, anti Semitism, human suffering, and despair, and who stood up against totalitarianism and bad actors, the outcome would have been different. We humans have been saddled with the responsibility of making a difference. If we are to survive as a livable planet for humans, people of good will who want to do the right thing can’t sit on our hands or give up. The stakes have never been higher.