Until she died at age 91, my mother used to read the newspaper every day, even though the news often shook her badly. She would regularly announce that it was the worst of times: the world was becoming more dangerous every day, violent, downright mashugana. Doomsday, she was convinced, was upon us.
Normally I'd laugh at her. I'd point out – for the nth time – what she, of course, already knew only too well. She spent the First World War in a small town in Poland, separated from her father in Canada for six years. She had grown up and gotten married during the Great Depression. Our family had lived through the entire Second World War.
She was Jewish; she knew all about the Holocaust. And about the atomic bombs the Americans inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which were immediately followed by almost a half-century of the Cold War. She was quite aware of the monstrous horrors inflicted by Stalin and Mao.
She knew that the world came close to mutual assured destruction in the Cuban missile crisis. She knew about the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the American wars in the Middle East, and even, thanks to me, the small vicious proxy Cold Wars fought across Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Given all this, I would challenge her: How can you say the world today is more dangerous than it's ever been before? I might even have thrown at her Steven Pinker's remarkable 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature, where Prof. Pinker documents the counterproposition that it's the best of times: We may actually be living in the most peaceful period in our species' existence.
Despite Prof. Pinker and his many successors, today, we can be certain, she'd insist that this is really the most dangerous moment humanity has ever faced. And today I'm not at all sure I'd try to change her mind. Between North Korea and Washington, Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump, it surely feels as if something qualitatively different, more perilous and threatening, something literally existential, might just be facing us.
We are rapidly approaching the same kind of escalation that led the world to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, with humankind on the very brink of nuclear war and nuclear destruction. I still recall it quite vividly. It was a uniquely terrifying moment in the lifetime of the world. Like everyone else, I too kept a sharp eye out for the very latest news to see how long we had left to exist.
If it sounds preposterously melodramatic now, it was real enough then. In the end, we were saved by both sides agreeing to back off. But it took the cool heads of the two most powerful men on earth, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, to spare us to try again one day.
Has that day now arrived? Surely no one would willingly entrust Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump with the future of humanity, yet neither seems controllable in the slightest. Who knows where their bizarre game of chicken may end up? It's perfectly plausible that one or another may stumble his way into launching the armed missile that would demand immediate retaliation by the other. The consequences, as we all knew back in the Cold War days, would indeed be mutual assured destruction. Who believes Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump can be trusted to choose sanity over nuclear Armageddon?
In any event, there are other roads to doom. For a start: the updating of nuclear weapons, climate wilding and Mr. Trump's America spinning out of control. Take the third: there's no reason to believe that this summer's outbreak of violent anarchy in Charlottesville, Va., will be the last. Countless Americans are ready to erupt. It's estimated that hundreds of heavily armed neo-fascist militias threaten to unleash their power, knowing they have an ally in the White House. Both furious African-Americans and frustrated whites have had enough. America feels ripe for its second civil war, which, like the first, would unleash forces that can hardly be imagined. How can any normal sensible person fail to be shaken? I include me.
Frankly, these feel to me like the apocalyptic End Times that the hysterical Old Testament prophets foresaw many millenniums ago. As Mr. Trump has provocatively warned, "fire and fury" are next. Perhaps my dear old Mama understood human nature better than Prof. Steven Pinker.
(P.S. Don't get angry at me. I'm just the messenger.)