The Question isn’t “Can We?” It’s “Should We?”

The message was subtle, just one line in the book and the movie Jurassic Park, but it hit me right between the eyes. Jeff Goldblum’s character said it (Dr. Ian Malcolm). If you sit back for a moment and think of all of Crichton’s books, you realize it is such an important truism that it was the only thing he wrote about. “Yeah,” says Malcolm to John Hammond (played by Lord Richard Attenborough, who interestingly also played Kris Kringle in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street) but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

I thought of the line as soon as the whole gun control debate sprang up after the egregious events in Connecticut a week ago, along with another quote spoken by Albert Einstein about his contribution to the development of the atomic bomb in the aftermath of its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” He would later elaborate, “I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made…”

Consider the two thoughts together, and what floats to the top for me is clear: Our “way of thinking” must be adapted so that the question “Should we?” instantly follows “Can we?” and is based squarely in the “heart of mankind.”

The creation legends of Genesis (yes, plural, because there are at least two streams of thought mashed together) point to it too, in my “way of thinking.” It was not the tree of good and evil, after all, that God told Adam and Eve to stay away from. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I don’t think it was knowledge that God was trying to protect them from. It wasn’t the knowledge of good and evil so much as the arrogant illusion that any one of us has the capacity to differentiate between the two. It was the fact that we are prone to make ourselves gods, addressed in the very first commandment (of both versions, and yes, there are two of those, also), the fact that once unleashed, the idea that “my” way, my definition, is the “only” way is both viral…and deadly. Once we’ve decided something or someone is evil, we determine to destroy it, and do so with the pump of a fist or a rifle, with no inkling of doubt about our omniscience. My way is right, your way is wrong, and anything goes in the battle to not only squash your influence, but annihilate you in the process.

Thank you very much, says Smith and Wesson, but my right to make and sell a gun to whomever I can sell it trumps your right to life. Hey, I know, just run out and get a gun, two, three, twenty of your own. Kill yourself for all we care. You’ve already given me your money, and that’s all that matters. And, by the way, that guy over there is evil. He wants to take the guns you already have away from you. Maybe you should upgrade and go out in a virtual blaze of glory. Why do we do it? Because we can.

The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.

Thank you very much, says Wal*Mart, but keeping our profits around $25 billion is more important than paying a reasonable wage for those who peddle our cheap goods from Asian sweatshops. So, we’ll let you dumb slobs flocking to buy those same cheap goods foot the bill for healthcare in your state. The deal YOU get at the cash register is the only thing that’s important. Why do we do it? Because we can.

The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.

Thank you very much, says the big union boss, but we long since quit caring if the company makes a decent profit. We don’t care if the whole place goes down. Why do we do it? Because we can.

The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.

Thank you very much, says the representative, but I sold my soul to the devil. Keeping my promise to Grover Norquist is more important than keeping my promise to you. (Oh, yeah, we know Grover’s on the board of the NRA.) Why do we do it? Because we can.

The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.

“Why did you do it? Why did you even let the thing with Monica Lewinsky happen?” an interviewer asked Bill Clinton on his tour for the thousand-page tome, My Life. “Because I could,” he said.

Maybe, just maybe it’s time to ask, “Should we?”

But I’m not sure we can.

God, I miss Michael Crichton.

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