It is by now common knowledge-a modern-day myth, undisputed by the man himself- that when he witnessed the awesome power of the device he was responsible for inventing, Robert Oppenheimer found himself mulling over some powerful lines from the Hindu scriptures. If you type in "Bhagavad Gita Oppenheimer" on Google, there are no fewer than 36,600 responses. One is a footnote to an essay by James A. Hijiya, which refers to the version of this story found in Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists by Robert Jungk (translated by James Cleugh, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1958, page 201):
A passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred epic of the Hindus, flashed into his mind:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst into the sky,
That would be like
The splendor of the Mighty One-
Yet, when the sinister and gigantic cloud rose up in the far distance over Point Zero, he was reminded of another line from the same source:
I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.
For a thoughtful, scholarly, fragile American Jew, originally driven (like Albert Einstein before him, when he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt to encourage him to embark upon what was to become the Manhattan Project) by the fear that Adolf Hitler might get there first, it was perhaps just bearable to have become a potential "shatterer" or destroyer. And still, the manner in which this burden turned out to be too heavy for his shoulders, as Jungk details in his book, does honor to his tormented soul.
But what if the power to shatter our world falls into the hands of a Holocaust denier, a man whose reading of World War II places him close to the ranks of Nazi apologists, whose regime murders Baha'is for their faith and represses all other free-thinking Iranians-and for whom the extermination of Israel, and the destruction of American power in the Middle East and beyond, are seen as a sacred mission? It is not scaremongering to contemplate the full meaning of Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in possession of a nuclear arsenal: It is a necessary prerequisite for action.
This week, in speeches before the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Los Angeles, the leaders of Israel crossed the rhetorical threshold long limited to off-the-record comments and background briefings. Both Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke, in no uncertain terms, about this time being akin to the 1930s, when Hitler rose to power with an overtly exterminatory agenda and the world stood idly by. There are three reasons for this clarion call now, aimed at mobilizing American Jewry, alerting opinion at home, and putting the world on notice:
* The galling defiance demonstrated not only by the Iranian leadership itself-this week, Ahmadinejad expressed his hope, in utter disregard of IAEA warnings, that Iran would soon be able to celebrate a fully operational fuel cycle-but also by their regional allies and proxies: Khaled Mash'al in Damascus, who takes Iran's money and works to prevent an internal Palestinian compromise; Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the "Popular Resistance Committees" in Gaza, whose shelling of S'derot took the life of one woman today and threatens to ignite a full-scale conflict; and Hezbollah in Lebanon, who is not only busy trying to break and destroy the Siniora government, but also blatantly ignores or defies international norms (by running "a state within a state") and UN resolutions (by refusing to obey UNSCR 1559 and 1701 to disarm).
* The new sense of urgency and fear in the region, which already has driven several Arab countries-including Egypt-to hint heavily that they might soon need to weigh the (civilian) nuclear option. Note that for some forty years, ever since they first came to the conclusion that Israel might have the bomb, the Arab states have settled for what Winston Churchill once called the "jaw-jaw" ("To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war"), whereas the prospect of a Shi'a bomb frightens them now into new avenues of action.
* The need, quite frankly, to counter the rumblings in Washington, particularly among the newly empowered "realists," to the effect that a "grand bargain with Iran," possibly at the expense of Israeli rights, is better than any form of forceful action. Such a grand bargain, today, would include not only the survival of the regime, but its rise to regional dominance (with all that this might entail for a regime like Jordan- and for us).
None of this means that it is the business of Israel to tell the U.S. or the international community how, or when, they should take action. Nor should it be our business. What we must do, at this time, is to signal as forcefully as humanly possible that this is not a "can" that can be kicked further down the road. The time for momentous decisions is now.