Afterlife Now

The other day, scientists announced that they found the gene that controls aging in fruit flies, and produced modified flies with double the normal life-span. They estimated that within 20 years it should be possible to double human longevity, too. 

An unexpected side-effect will be some amazing implications for our standards of morality. The world’s great religions have always striven to implant moral sanctions based on the idea of the long arm of divine law. The Christian heaven and hell, the Buddhist cycle of karma, and the Moslem Day of Judgment, are on the verge of being synthesized by genetic engineering. Combined with the shrinking of time and space brought about by revolutions in transport, information and communications, a brave new day is emerging which will make it much clearer that crime really does not pay. 

Social scientists and philosophers have long known that while destructive behavior may appear to bring individuals short-term gains, intelligent altruism is the most successfully self-serving strategy in the long run. But life has been a rather short-run affair until now. 

For instance, If your business partner realizes that you may still be around 100 years from now to tell how he pulled a fast one on you back in the year 2001, this will change his calculation of the costs and benefits of sharp dealing. A youngster choosing between bank robbery or college for a future may see that the odds against living on stolen money without getting caught for 150 years, against constantly improving technology, are too wildly irrational to take. 

A host of unscrupulous actions pay off because the victim is too old and weak to fight to the end, but that “won’t compute” now. Add in the evolution in legal protection of human rights. It was a mere 35 years ago that the civil rights movement broke through Jim Crow laws in the South. Disadvantaged parties with a long life expectancy will be in a much better position to hold out until legislation catches up with their grievances. 

All in all, it means a revolution of more exacting moral standards. It is sure to have a strong impact also in international relations, theater of the worst crimes of our times. We have already witnessed the prosecution of the aging dictator Pinochet, and of Nazi war criminals who had lived too long. By publicizing the longevity effect, we may even help prevent bloodshed now. 

For example, if the urchin martyrs of Palestine and the young Israeli snipers arrayed against them could take this long view, they would not go for such kamikaze tactics. The rock-thrower would realize that even if his people’s struggle for justice is a long one, he is more valuable alive, and the trend of history is on the side of victims of oppression and prejudice anyway. He might opt for education or non-violent resistance as wiser tactics. More young soldiers might follow the example of Eyal Rozenberg and become conscientious objectors, to be heroes some day, rather than letting themselves be tools of an un-winnable war. The Israeli leadership – Barak and Begin were both professional hit men – would see how severely they risk standing before a war crimes tribunal some day. 

This moral revolution will reach back in time as well as into the future. The generation is still alive that remembers the expulsion from Palestine 52 years ago. There is little chance now they will die out before the reparations issue is resolved. As the weaker party, Palestinian negotiators will be able to hold out for tougher terms. All the parties ought to take the long view and hold out for a democratically elected government in Palestine with a real mandate to sign a peace agreement, or even a referendum on the key issues, to ensure a lasting peace. 

There is no guarantee that Americans will eternally be immune either. All Western countries voted in 1998 for the establishment of the International Criminal Court, a permanent war crimes tribunal. Except for … Israel and the US, because, as Sen. Helms wrote in a “smoking gun” memo on behalf of our foreign policy establishment, such a court would inhibit Israeli and American officials from actions liable to prosecution for crimes against humanity. The USA has supplied armaments for two generations of genocide in the Middle East. 

I have in mind also a recent study published by CSIS, a Washington think tank we are paying for. It details a range of brutal violations of human rights, including torture, that the Palestinian Authority may use to curb demonstrators. The way liability law develops over the years, I am glad not to be a member of cliques that advocate torture and massacres of civilians as part of our “national security interest”. There is always a reckoning someday. 

Terrorism, like guerrilla activity, is the weapon of the weak. Our decades-long military support for injustice only fosters it. We must redress the injustice, not find ever more brutal means of repressing dissent. The parallel to the history of civil rights in our own country is transparent enough – to our good fortune, we realized that rioters needed more equal opportunities, not more tear gas. 

However we decide, the dividends – the good or bad karma – will be coming in for a long time.

Mr. John-Paul Leonard is a free-lance writer and a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN)