What Obama really said at Hiroshima

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U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk in front of a cenotaph after they laid wreaths at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan on May 27, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Carlos Barria *EDs: This photo may only be used with RNS-LUPFER-OPED published on May 27, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama, right, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe walk in front of a cenotaph after they laid wreaths at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan on May 27, 2016. Photo courtesy REUTERS/Carlos Barria *EDs: This photo may only be used with RNS-LUPFER-OPED published on May 27, 2016.

President Obama made history this past week, when he became the first American president to visit Hiroshima.

And, no, he did not apologize for the United States dropping the atom bomb — despite what some people are saying.

And those who believe that he did so fail to understand what he, in fact, did say.

Read the speech, please.

First, for someone whose religious identity has often been questioned, Obama was acting as a Christian — in the highest and holiest sense of the word.

He was talking about grace.

The woman who forgave a pilot who flew the plane that dropped the atomic bomb, because she recognized that what she really hated was war itself; the man who sought out families of Americans killed here, because he believed their loss was equal to his own.

That was why Obama embraced survivors at Hiroshima.

He was not saying that the actions of the United States were immoral and wrong (in fact, I am among those who believe that they were necessary in order to end the war and to save American lives).

Rather, he was saying that it is the role of the human soul to reach out to those who are in pain.

Second, Obama was making a statement far better and far deeper than an apology.

Obama was reminding us: the nuclear age had effectively ended war as we had previously known it — and that it had ushered in a new set of core ethical issues that would forever shape the future of our civilization.

Yet in the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction; how the very spark that marks us as a species — our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will — those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction.

Obama was reminding us that science was capable of great good, but that it is basically amoral.

Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds; to cure disease and understand the cosmos. But those same discoveries can be turned into ever-more efficient killing machines.

Obama was reminding us that scientific progress is not sufficient for the future of our society — that “the scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well.”

If you want to “blame” anyone for Obama’s words, then blame one of the most revered Jewish theologians of our time, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who is the subject of a new and brilliant study by my friend and colleague, Michael Marmur.

In “Who Is Man?” Heschel reminds us that the world had irreversibly changed since the defining moments of World War Two.

Philosophy cannot be the same after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The question of man must be pondered not only in the halls of learning but also in the presence of inmates in extermination camps, and in the sight of the mushroom of a nuclear explosion.

How dare he mention Auschwitz and Hiroshima in the same breath!

Heschel wanted to teach us that technology and science do not exist in a vacuum. They have moral and spiritual consequences. The Holocaust and the nuclear age symbolize the triumph of manipulative thinking. We live in the era of knowledge that is devoid of wisdom and ethics.

The most technologically advanced, the most intellectually advanced society in Europe created the factories of death. Culture and cold-blooded murder are not mutually exclusive.

There is a lesson here for all of us, but mostly parents and teachers.

Education focuses on creating people with competence, but fails to create people with compassion.

Note to parents: We care too much about having children who are smart.

We care too little about having children who are caring.

Finally, Obama made his hopes for a nuclear-free future quite clear.

We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations, and secure deadly materials from fanatics.

He was talking, of course, about his hopes regarding the Iran deal. President Obama realizes that what Hiroshima teaches is that that which can be done, will be done. The genie, as they say, is out of the bottle.

But there is a corollary lesson that the world still needs to learn.

When evil people threaten to do something, believe them.

Like, for example, Iran — which recently test-fired two ballistic missiles with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out” written on them.

So, yes — the potential demonic nature of science is the lesson of Hiroshima, as well as the Holocaust, which was the production of what Franklin Littell called “technologically competent barbarians.”

But the other lesson?

Take evil seriously.

Very seriously.