Living through the unthinkables

We think we know where we’re going. But do we really?

The world has changed a lot in our lifetimes, and I’m not just talking to the old fogies out there. A lot of unthinkable things have happened, and they linger in the news and in our lives, often as unexplainable events.

For example, violence has taken some incredible turns in recent years.

When I was a kid, there were occasional reports of airplanes hijacked by desperate criminals or revolutionaries with political agendas. Even back then aircraft were used for nefarious purposes, but no one anticipated what was to come on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists took control of four commercial aircraft and used them as weapons of mass destruction. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and more than 6,000 others injured on that day that changed our lives forever.

That took us, unexpectedly, into a forever war against terrorism. In hindsight, we now see the circumstances that built up to that day, how there were, and are, people who seek to destroy Western Civilization, but back in 2001 the average American was clueless. We were blindsided by the unthinkable.

Then there’s the rise of school shootings in our time. Violence in our schools has always occurred, but only in recent times have mass shootings become so commonplace.

Perhaps it began in 1966, when a 25-year-old student climbed a tower at the University of Texas and shot down on the campus for 96 minutes, killing 17 people and injuring 31 others. There have been hundreds of school shootings since then—though most of them didn’t result in such high numbers of victims, so we didn’t freak out too much.

Then came the high school massacre in Littleton, Colo., and two separate, same-day killing sprees on the campus of Virginia Tech. And then, just a couple of weeks before Christmas in 2012, came the horrific elementary school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people—mostly children and their adult protectors—were shot and killed by a gunman barely out of his teens.

The Sandy Hook killer started his rampage by killing his own mother at home, and then he ended his massacre by killing himself, leaving us to wonder why.

It’s unthinkable how anyone could do such a thing, but it happened. They all happened. And, still, we’re at a loss for how to stop such violence.

We spend more time on how to respond to an “active shooter” at a school than we do on how to prevent another one from occurring.

Of course, not all unexpected changes in our culture stem from violence. I suppose some geeks and Star Trek fans saw smart phones coming, but for me it was a surprise to find access to the whole world in the palm of my hand.

When I was in high school, one of the more useful subjects I took was a typing class, where my biggest concern was whether I’d get to practice on a manual or an electric typewriter. Now, the lingering question is whether I’ll ever get used to simply dictating my words into my “phone” instead of “keyboarding” my written communications.

I guess we all knew that technology would eventually take over so many of the manual tasks in our lives—as seen in our modern-day kitchens as well as on factory floors—but, still, I can’t help but wonder: Are we ready to compete with our own creations for our very survival?

Businessman Elon Musk, a futurist if there ever was one, suggests that such a day could be coming, though Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, an opportunist of the highest caliber, says we should all just relax, the future is nothing but bright. Meanwhile, as they argue over what the future looks like, artificial intelligence is preparing to take over the world.

Maybe a robotic takeover is a good thing, or maybe not. I for one prefer humanity at the top of Earth’s evolutionary chain, even if we are terror-filled and self-destructive. And shortsighted, very much so.

The fact that we could actually be creating our own replacements proves just how naïve humans really are. And, I would readily add, always have been.

Tom McDonald is founder and editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.