I was re-reading one of my favorite comics and came across a quote:
And now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
In context of that comic it is silly. But, still, I found it both familiar and poetic. With a little bit of research I found the origin of the quote, the person who made it famous, and its tie to the end of World War II.
This is J. Robert Oppenheimer – the “Father of The Atomic Bomb,” and director of the Manhattan Project. He is recalling the Trinity explosion that took place July 16th, 1945 (this footage is from 20 years after). It is clear that he still felt pain over the events that ended World War II – or, maybe it is sadness, or regret. I don’t know. I don’t want to pretend to know. To pontificate would do that struggle little justice. Until I design something capable of killing so many I am in no position to understand such a man. More so, I am in no hurry to try.
What I can understand is the struggle itself. It is fundamental: Capability vs Execution (we could, but should we?) I don't think men of such minds would be so quick to destroy lives less their hands be forced: the Japanese were not willing to surrender – they fully intended to continue along the path they saw to be their destiny. Consider the questions these men must have asked themselves: At what point do we have no other choice? What is the best defense of the Common Good? If we execute these destructive means, what role do we then play in the Common Good? What do we then become? For Oppenheimer, those twenty years later, it was too late. No matter the conclusions, the haunting was evident. Like any man faced with a decision of that magnitude I would think his life became filled with reasoning and second-guessing.*
If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one.
This line prefaces the more famous line which comes at the front of this article. Both are from the Bhagavad Gita – which Oppenheimer read in Sanskrit, its original language. It is the text he claimed to be the most influential on his life. From these two ideas it is clear that Oppenheimer had in his mind another question:
Have we created the ability to truly play God?
The question is not one of power, but of fear. Without God, we would become the sole guardian of all things, with nothing to look after us. A mortal God capable of devastation is a scary role. It would be easy to slide into a reckless abuse of that power. Even as an atheist I understand this struggle. I can't comment more than that. There are far more scholarly people who have debated the issue in a way far more eloquently than I could. I simply find it interesting, because there is no answer.
*I will eventually discuss the Potsdam Declaration which may offer clarity on the subject. Or more questions.