Column: Klaatu Barada Nikto

In 1951, America had a visitor from outer space.  His name was Klaatu.  He appeared, along with his short-tempered robot Gort, in the science fiction movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” This remarkably skinny humanoid anticipated that his visit to our planet would be problematic.  Consequently he advised a female earthling, who inexplicably trusted him on first sight to look after her prepubescent son, to convey a three word message to his robot if his mission ran into trouble. The friendly extraterrestrial was, of course, shot and killed by Americans who considered him a “suspicious character.” His unbelievably trusting female acquaintance rushed to give Gort the pre-rehearsed message, “Klaatu barada nikto.” She did not know what those three words meant, but subsequent events suggested it meant, “Klaatu has been killed.  Find him and resuscitate him. Do not destroy the humans yet.”

The premise behind this movie was interesting and timely. Klaatu (after being revivified) explained to the scientists of the world that he came to warn them. A peace-keeping forum somewhere in the galaxy had lost patience with the ever-combative earthlings and had decided to eradicate them if they would not stop their incessant wars which, with the advent of the atomic bomb, could make the planet uninhabitable for everything for the foreseeable future. He made it clear that he did not care who started the wars or why there was another war. The message was simple and blunt: Get your s—t together or you are all toast.

As the world collectively holds its breath over events in the Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and adjacent countries, Klaatu’s message is as relevant now as it was in 1951.  Eight years ago, Russia invaded that part of the Ukraine traditionally known as the Crimea and faced no real consequences. Now that appears to have been a rehearsal for the much more ambitious plan to control all of the Ukraine. Vladimir Putin grew up during the Cold War and apparently developed a taste for more heated engagements. 

Russia has grown wealthy supplying energy to Europe and weapons to much of the rest of the world. Its leaders see no obstacles to its rebuilding the once formidable Russian Empire.  They have invested trillions of rubles in offensive weapons and are eager to use them. They know that Europe will freeze without Russian oil and gas imports. They know that the United States will not step into another quagmire that could launch World War III. 

After twenty years in Afghanistan and ten years in Vietnam, American military leaders have learned that there are many fights not worth getting into, even if you have the strongest army, navy, and air force in the world. Americans do not want to see their neighbors coming home without arms or legs after fighting against an opponent whose leaders are apparently indifferent to the suffering of its citizens.

And so we watch as Putin’s tanks roll across the plains of Belarus and rocket launchers spray missiles into the air. But, why? Is this 1942, when bombs and bullets establish the winner in global conflicts? Do great nations still rely on land mines and poison gases to expand their influence? Even in 1951 the script writers for “The Day the World Stood Still” recognized that the age of successful blood baths had passed.  To get the world’s attention, Klaatu only needed to stop all engines generating power. Electric motors, internal combustion engines, steam driven devices were all compromised. The globe kept spinning, but every human invention stopped working.

After World War II, it was often said that the atomic bomb may have ended the war, but radar won the war. The British mathematician Alan Turing’s decoding of encrypted German military plans did more to save Allied lives than any body armor or troop carrier. Bombs and bullets kill people and destroy buildings, but technology wins wars in the twenty-first century. If Putin chooses to destroy the Ukraine’s buildings, bridges, and bomb shelters and slaughter its people, it will be an act of terror, not of necessity. With a wave of his dictatorial hand, he could bring the Ukraine to a standstill. His tanks and troops are nothing more than instruments of torture. The real weapons of modern nations are software, computers, satellites, and drones.

This reliance on technology in general and on computers in particular has spread to almost all aspects of American healthcare. Over the past 30 years, the field of medicine has increasingly invested in and become dependent upon computer systems and networks to deliver healthcare.  With the increased efficiency provided by these systems and networks has come an unprecedented vulnerability. Ransomware intrusions have crippled numerous hospitals and have established that a cyberattack could shut down the American healthcare system entirely. Until now the primary motivation for crippling or spying on medical records has been financial. The consequences of these unwelcome intrusions have been minor compared to what could be accomplished by a state-sponsored attack on the computers of the American healthcare system.  The immediate death toll would greatly exceed that of any pandemic, past or present.

America needs a Plan B, an alternative to dependence on a system accessible to any antagonist or mischief-maker in the world. We need a system with unbreachable firewalls and instantaneous repercussions for individuals or organizations trying to breach those firewalls. Unfortunately, our machines cannot protect us or themselves from clever opponents. We need innovative minds, like Alan Turing’s, and massive investments, like those which enabled Americans to land on the moon, to secure our exceedingly fragile but indispensable healthcare system.

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