Cronkite on Famine, Pestilence and Death
By RON WERTHEIMER
NYTimes - April 14, 2003
T. S. Eliot had it backward. Forget the whimper, the world will end with a bang, and possibly soon. This kind of apocalyptic foreboding underlies "Avoiding Armageddon," a disturbing four-part, eight-hour documentary series running tonight through Thursday on PBS.
These programs are far richer in Armageddon than in avoiding, raising the specters of disease and destruction spread through the world by troubling terrorists. The segments are rich, too, in alarming (even agonizing) alliteration, with episode titles that include phrases like "Poisons and Plagues," "Nuclear Nightmares" and "Turning the Tide."
The concept of Armageddon comes from Revelation, and this revelation is intoned by Walter Cronkite, perfectly cast in the role of anguished patriarch. "Anybody, anyplace could become a victim," he warns.
This production, the initial effort of Ted Turner Documentaries, clearly was assembled with care and a noble sense of purpose. With the subtlety and grace of your garden-variety infomercial, it lays out its litany of insurmountable problems. But unlike the problems in infomercials, these do not have ready solutions. Keeping the world safe from armed zealots is more vexing than developing six-pack abs.
Thus these nightly editions create an almost unbearable tension that may send many viewers fleeing from their televisions in anxiety. (Each program is to end with a related panel discussion led by Frank Sesno, the veteran broadcast reporter now a professor; these segments were not provided for review.)
Tonight's installment is about chemical and biological weapons, which have been part of the world's arsenal since the early 1900's. "Ethical considerations were not a factor," Mr. Cronkite says. The report includes horrifying details of Japan's germ warfare against the Chinese in the 1930's and 40's and Iraq's against the Iranians in the 80's. Graphic pictures of the dying and dead are included.
Recalling the Postal Service's anthrax episode from 2001, the program interviews one postal worker who contracted the disease. "I was so sick," he recalls, "that if the doctors told me that they had to cut off my left arm in order for me to breathe, I would've said yes."
Tomorrow night's focus is nuclear weapons, like the ones sitting in neglected storage in the former Soviet Union. Terrorists could steal some of those, or buy some from North Korea. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, calls that country the world's most "promiscuous proliferator" (alliteration again), saying it "could become the nuclear Weapons `R' Us."
Mr. Cronkite reports that more than 130 civilian labs around the world have weapons-grade nuclear material. And if that doesn't scare you, he asks you to consider what would have happened if the World Trade Center had been attacked with a small nuclear bomb: "A bowling-ball-size lump of highly enriched uranium could produce a Hiroshima-size bomb."
Part 3, looking at the young people who are today's fledgling terrorists, and Part 4, about the prospects for turning the tide of AIDS and instability in much of the world, complete this dismal picture. "The long-term problems will last for generations," Mr. Cronkite says, "threatening global security." Forthright assessments from experts including Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, George Tenet and Mikhail Gorbachev don't offer a great deal of hope.
"It's our future and our choice," Mr. Cronkite says at the outset. But there seems little that the average citizen can do. Unless you've been hiding under the blankets, you've had ample evidence lately of the world's cruelty. This well-intentioned series does little more than fan flames of fear.