Published in 1995 in New Texas Magazine and Creations Magazine in New York
I woke at two in the morning to make the drive from Santa Fe to the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico. With only two hours sleep and still un-acclimated to the altitude of Santa Fe I felt disoriented.
I was going to the Trinity test site, the place of the first atomic bomb test fifty years ago on this very day. The military was opening the site for a few hours, from five AM to eleven AM, to mark the anniversary. I felt compelled to see that place for myself, to stand in it and feel its essence. Trinity represented many things, scientific breakthrough, the end of World War II, and a paradigm shift from a material world to an energetic world. Most disturbingly it represented how our intelligence, energy, and light can turn to unimaginable violence.
Trinity was the most dramatic and powerful container for rage and violence we’ve created. It wasn’t the only one. I knew our violence also rested in a hundred million slaps, hits, bullet wounds, knife cuts, insults, screamings, sexual assaults, cruel jokes and other wounds. Violence has always been with us, it’s nothing new, but Trinity changed things. It united us in violence. We could no longer shoot the other guy without shooting ourselves.
The last fifty years have been a call to human transformation and the Trinity site was the place the alarm clock went off. Change or die. The message was clear. It was also clear we might not hear the wake up call.
Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, funded the peace prize with profits from his invention, dynamite. Nobel believed that dynamite was such a hideously destructive weapon it would end war. It didn’t. War became more hideous. In World War II 55 million lives were sacrificed. The original builders of the atomic bomb believed the same thing, that the complimentarity of the destruction could be world peace. We've survived the fifty years since the Trinity test, but the jury is still out on whether we will change enough to survive.
I drove my blue pickup south as my bleary mind tried to reach for some brilliant epiphany about human violence. There was none. I’d seen too much of the impact of violence, a murdered aunt, a brutally stabbed uncle, a father and grandparents with emotional wounds from World War I, women friends who had been raped or battered. The list was long when I thought about it.
Wanting violence to just stop wasn’t enough. Most of us wanted it to stop. I felt sorry for us troubled humans, so brilliant, so reactive, powerful, promising, and foolish.
In the lower desert south of Albuquerque I thought my trucks electrical system was burning until I realized the smell of the desert creosote bushes was seeping into the cab. I felt a little like burning electrical wire myself.
Turning off the road past Socorro I entered an area called the Jornada Del Muerto, the journey of death. A few miles later I turned to enter Stallions gate and go on the White Sands Missile Range. The turn off was just before the Valley of Fire. Even the names around Trinity were powerful. The guard at the gate gave me a list of thirteen rules to follow.
The test site was seventeen miles from the gate and driving through the missile range I could see mysterious domed buildings planted here and there in the desert. The little boy part of me thought about all the neat toys the military must have hidden on the missile range. I could understand the human desire to make a bomb, just to see if one could.
Pulling into the dusty parking area soldiers directed me with crisp precision to an exact, to the inch, parking spot while a quietly beautiful sunrise illuminated the desert. I walked from the parking area along a short road going to the monument at ground zero. There were no speeches, refreshment stands or anything that smacked of celebration. Trinity was not a party. It was a solemn, mystical, and sad place calling for quiet contemplation.
Walking in that rare place I saw the remarkable quality of the land. An amphitheater of the San Andreas mountains bordered the area. The desert was rich with emptiness and I could feel the grief of the place. In an uncanny resonance it had rained the night before, just as it had fifty years ago on the night of the test.
Approaching the monument at ground zero I was struck by the number of news crews taping and interviewing. The stalks of boom mikes reached over the small crowd like a field of bamboo. I realized how significant and world changing this event had been and how alive it still is. Of course it was news, the biggest kind of news. It was the day human beings outsmarted themselves. We meant to end a war, but we may also have ended ourselves.
Looking at ground zero I imagined the fireball of light spreading and expanding like a small sun. For just a moment I wondered if the two things, destruction and transformation, were the same. Would transformation feel like destruction? Are we changing, or just dying in a burst of light?
I felt an uneasiness at the seeing the Japanese news crews. I had an impulse to walk up the them and say something but I didn’t know what to say. They didn’t seem interested in talking with me anyway. I felt a moment of the original ancient problem: an aspect of separation.
As I turned back towards the Lava rock obelisk marking the place that had been hotter than the surface of the sun exactly fifty years before I spotted something striking. It was so perfect it almost seemed staged.
There were, among the random milling of spectators, two distinct little groups. Were I a quicker photographer I could have caught the moment but what I missed on film imprinted on my soul.
There was a group of soldiers in fatigues and a group of protesters in, well, new age fatigues. Each group was self contained and self referenced, wearing their colors like street gangs. They both turned inward towards their own kind. There again was the problem. I saw the quiet violence of ordinary well meaning people, little thumps of it bouncing from group to group. I was afraid of the Japanese news crews. (Would they make me out to be a monster? Do they hate me?) The soldiers drew back from the protesters and the protesters were afraid of the soldiers. Everything was separate. The “other” was an object of fear or ridicule. The “other” was made of a different substance. The “other” was not me.
There are so many kinds of violence, domestic violence, random violence, terrorism, workplace violence, with all the attendant victims of violence, perpetrators of violence, and violence towards the self in the form of repression.
The violent jealously controls the “other.” Never recognizing the self in the other. The victim bends to the self hatred, often feeling they deserve the treatment they receive.
Maybe a little epiphany was sinking in. The big violence of Trinity and the little violence of a single relationship had commonalties. Violence was separation of the deepest kind. I thought, “My God we are fools.” We try to make others more like us in ways that are unimportant. Where we are alike we miss the connection entirely. We are upside down and backwards.
Separation, in one way, is necessary and good. Birth is separation, violent, bloody, painful and good. Individuating, making our own choices, separating from peer pressure is a good thing. It can be difficult and painful but it’s good. Those separations are physical, psychological or emotional. We need that kind of space around ourselves. What we don’t need is spiritual separation.
We miss the huge commonality of living beings. We all breathe, we eat, we love, we want significance in our lives, we want to be cared about, we have thoughts, feelings, and we’ve all been children. The common ground is endless. We all share the same ground of being.
The illusion, the separation of the inseparable, is the delusion the “other” is separated from the universal. “They” are things, less than I, violating me in some way, and God is on my side. With that mind set we can easily cook each other like Thanksgiving day turkeys and feel good about it.
It is false and exagerrated separation that threatens our existence. If I recognize the same life that is in me is in you then you might not be so easy to dismiss or objectify.
From studies of how ordinary people can commit wartime atrocities we’ve found that dehumanization of the “other” is fundamental. The “other” has to be seen as less than human and then we can treat it like an animal or a machine. That’s the terror we face. In someone else’s eyes you and I are less than human.
The truth is we are all aspects of the same self. The universal is the substance of each of us, even if you simply consider that universal the laws of physics and chemistry and biology and sociology. We are one person with countless personalities. That’s what Trinity requires we recognize. The mundane differences are our entertainment and richness. But they can never extinguish our common light.
I’d been to Los Alamos Labs where the original bombs were designed and built. To this day the mission of Los Alamos is design of nuclear weapons. When I visited the lab I saw a people I liked. Bright, educated men and women who I could enjoy friendships with were the creators of this power to destroy. I couldn’t fit all that in my mind. It didn’t make sense. I wasn’t seeing evil people delighting in the capacity to cause suffering. I was seeing people interested in science, working on puzzles, meeting technical challenges and caring for their families. They were however, compartmentalized, separated from the whole picture. They don’t really know what they’re building except in an abstract sort of way.
The lesson of Trinity reminded me of a cartoon a family friend pointed out to my dad in the 1950’s. Father Ed, a priest, held up a Pogo cartoon from the Sunday funnies and roared. It said, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.” When we can’t see our own light, we can’t see the light in others. We all turn into things.
Fifty years ago this month ordinary men and women started streaming home from a thousand spent battles and factories turning out B-29’s, hand grenades and helmets.. Ordinary fathers, ordinary mothers, sons, and daughters came home to rest after committing 55 million murders.
I milled around with the crowd for a while. It struck me that exactly fifty years ago I was sitting in my mother’s womb. I would be born in December of 1945. I was an atomic baby.
A little girl about eleven, dressed in a white dress caught my eye. She was looking at me saying, “Here’s some.” She was squatting over some rocks. Walking over to look I saw what she was pointing at, Trinitite. It was a mineral formed at the moment of the explosion. A glass melted from the sand of the Jornada del Muerto and our homemade sun.
I picked up a piece. Just then I saw two soldiers heading my way. Maybe I should have read the rules. “Don’t pick up the Trinitite.” was on there somewhere. The stuff is still radioactive. I had to get a closer look.
Dodging the soldiers I looked carefully at my piece of Trinity, my frozen moment of time. It was beautiful. It was green, a color I think of as healing, and it sparked with light. I liked the stuff. I stood hoping that will be the residue of our violence, a sparkling healing.
All I knew right then was the soldiers were still watching me. I was hungry and tired. The thick desert heat was just beginning to wave its hand over the Jornada and I was ready to go grab some food from the truck and head back to Santa Fe.
I wanted to go wash my hands before I ate.