The duty to hear and see

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THE Soviet Union first denied, then minimized, and has yet to acknowledge in detail what to the rest of the world is plain evidence of a nuclear disaster near Kiev. This obduracy can be ascribed to the Soviet system's inability to show any failings to its own people or weakness abroad. In the specific case of the Chernobyl incident, the Soviet penchant for denying imperfection must be condemned, because it has put into unnecessary jeopardy its own citizens and those of other nations. But to leave the subject of Soviet denial in these terms alone is to miss a larger point. Such denial of immediate evidence is but one side of a pervasive human inability to come to grips with the flow of events. On the other side is the tendency to become too immersed in surface news, in the topic of the day. In between can be a chronic moderation.

Think for a moment about what happened to the Libya story when news of Chernobyl hit. It was all but wiped off the front pages, blacked out from the news hour. Or President Reagan's grand tour of Asia: As reported home, it became a strung-out response to the nuclear power events. When stories can seem to carry such news megatonnage one night and then fade to mere news summary items the next, one should wonder about their objective reality. Most likely, after the biff-bang of first impressions, the fundamentals of the story remain to be dealt with: how to correct the American space program's flaws; what to do with the diplomatic and other problems that have followed the US reprisal against Libya; and in the Chernobyl case, how to bring the Soviet nuclear energy program enough into the open that its potential for endangering others can be confronted.

The citizen has a crucial place in all of this. After all, that is where perception occurs, in his own thought. The individual is responsible for his thinking -- including either a refusal to see or too great an impressionableness. People carrying too much ideological or political baggage can tend to construe each public occurrence -- each news item -- as more evidence that their own prefabricated views are the right ones.

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They can be blind to current events, to changing circumstances, though they do not recognize this. This is true in social, cultural, and religious as well as political matters. The danger here is that warnings of potential trouble which events can give -- or evidence of movement in progressive directions -- can go unseen.

Who among us has not been a Saul of Tarsus, most convinced that he is right when dead wrong, blinded by convictions, until some enlightenment from outside our little constellation of notions wakes us up?

Protecting the individual's ability to hear and see is of public importance. Elisha was able to warn his king of the words spoken in the enemy king's very bed-chamber, and thus forestall danger for his people. And when facing siege, Elisha overcame his servant's fears, the common dread, by perceiving protective forces at hand where apparently there was only the enemy.

The totalitarian system's denial of individual freedom is reprehensible, because it would suppress both the evidence and the citizens' rights of inquiry and response. But not even those fortunately living under democratic systems are entirely free of the limiting patterns of observation and response.

The Western world's financial collapse after the roaring '20s, the costly trek into the jungles of Vietnam until the imperative to become involved turned around into the call to quit, the warnings unheeded of flawed design, conditions, and command before the recent Challenger explosion -- these were failures of perception, not merely the result of news events that occurred on some external screen.

If human history is at least in part metaphor, we can take from Chernobyl a useful reminder: In public as in private matters, we need to temper our convictions with the humility to listen and to observe freely.

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