By John Kelly
Long ago, when we were still young enough to be excited by the New Year, one of our group seated in the local hostelry remarked, "Isn’t it funny to think that we were all here at this time last year?"
Another of the group, something of a weary philosopher despite his tender age, growled, "Shows how much progress we made in the meantime."
That conversation came back to me with startling vividness as I strolled through the narrow streets of Roman Pompeii a few months ago.
Why did I remember that flippant New Year’s exchange in the midst of a city that died beneath a mass of lava only 89 years after the birth of Christ?
It was 1,500 years later before the remains of Pompeii were partly re-discovered. A few hundred years more were to pass before arch’ologists found, to their astonishment, that the Roman city was preserved almost as intact as it was when the eruptions of Vesuvius first entombed it.
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The houses, most terraced, with their atriums and their shining plaster frescoes, are almost as glorious as once they were. There was a sense of humor too.
One fresco displays a snarling dog and the written warning, "Beware of the Dog."
How modern can you get?
However, our guide took our breath away when she pointed to the well-preserved remains of a front porch and casually remarked, "It’s clear that it was designed for sliding doors."
Sliding doors? Ancient Rome?
Later, I remembered that New Year’s Eve conversation when one of our party, a teacher, reviewing our visit to Pompeii, exclaimed, "My God, humanity hardly made any progress at all in almost 1,500 years after the Romans."
There was more than a hint of truth in that statement. After all, it took us a heck of a long time to get back to sliding doors.
So much for civilization as we grope into the shiny new opportunities of the glittering prosperity of the western world in the year of Our Lord, 2001.
There’s an ancient phrase in the English language: time and tide change all things.
When Pompeii was buried 89 years after the birth of a lowly Jew descended from the ancient tribe of David, Rome was at its zenith.
It had conquered the entire known world. Unlike its successor in the empirical stakes, the sun still set on the smaller Roman version. Otherwise, it was impervious to human difference as it was to human suffering.
Although superficially civilized, it was essentially barbaric at its core.
Its conquests and its consequent prosperity far exceeded its social maturity.
The Western world today, with the United States in the forefront, occupies much the same position in a much larger world than Rome once dominated by proportion.
Even as the citizens of Pompeii fled their stricken city, leaving hundreds of its 15,000 people poisoned and encased in lava for all time, the spirit of the lowly born Jew, crucified just over 50 years before, was already conquering the mighty empire that had killed him.
Everything was changing even though it seemed to be all the same. The resurrection of Christ was the triumph of Christianity.
Two thousand years on, it seems that the people of the Western world are intent on removing that particular spirit from their everyday life.
In short, everything is changing again, although it seems to be still the same.
While the Western world basks in its prosperity, while mighty civilizations reach their soaring zeniths, millions in the Third World continue to suffer the deprivation, the poverty and the same mind-numbing indifference they have had to endure for all of eternity.
Despite all of our seeming sophisticated materialism the same core of barbarity that finally destroyed Rome remains within the heart of man.
Small Wars pockmark the material gods of the modern world.
At the heart of Africa, in the Congo, thousands still die as the result of continuing civil war.
In the Middle East, despite the most earnest efforts of the world’s most enlightened and most prosperous nation, Jews and Arabs continue to slaughter each other simply because they are Jews and Arabs.
In Malaysia, Moslems kill helpless Christians for much the same reason, just because they are different.
When Russia was still the heart of the USSR, when the Cold War continually threatened to flame into a hot one, the Western world took more notice of such divisions.
One side or the other attempted to use them for its own advantage.
Now that the Cold War and the USSR are largely things of the past, the Western world no longer has to protect its own selfish interests. Until it does, the small wars are likely to continue.
The only conclusion is that people are just as disposable as they always were, especially in the days of the triumphal Roman civilization.
In short, although everything seems to have changed, nothing has, purely because the human spirit has not changed from the days of ancient Rome and devastated Pompeii.
In the first real year of the millennium, humanity has to remain constantly on guard against itself and its own, inherently worst instincts.
These are important lessons that the incoming U.S. president, George Bush, may not yet have learned especially when it comes down to the very important role the nation has entrusted to him in foreign policy.
He may not know very much about any foreign country. He may not even know very much outside of Texas. And he may dislike the term, "foreign policy" as much as many of his fellow Americans and slightly confused voters seem to dislike it.
He may not have agreed with the very helpful attitude displayed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton.
However, if he does not change that approach he will be much less of a president because of it.
The small wars are important. Everything that happens in every part of the world, every injustice and barbarity, inflicted by men on his or her fellow men, is important to everyone in the world.
If one low-born Jew can bring down an Empire that crucified him, it must be clear that an accumulation of small wars and the continuation of the exploitation and indifference that leads to such local conflagrations is, at the very least, important.
Let’s hope that Bush does not lead America into a new period of isolationism. It is not good for the rest of the world.