I heard a depressing but also a fascinating debate at Stanford University on Saturday morning, Oct. 14, on "Anxious Times Seeing Beyond a World of Perpetual Threats."
Moderated by former ABC newsman Ted Koppel, who is now managing editor of the Discovery Channel, the seven notable panelists painted a rather bleak picture of the world we live in. They talked about North Korea, a worldwide pandemic flu, a global shortage of clean drinking water, the future of newspapers, the Internet ("there's no going back"), the loss of civil liberties in this country, the need to talk more with our purported enemies, educating our children in science, technology, and constitutional principles and more.
Sitting there listening to this civil discourse on the major issues of the day, I felt very lucky to live so close to Stanford, and to be able to attend a conference like this a mere five minutes from my home.
Panelists included former Secretary of State George Shultz, Stanford President John Hennessy, Yahoo! Inc. co-founder Jerry Yang, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean-Pierre Garnier, and Dr. Lucy Shapiro, Stanford professor of developmental biology and cancer research.
One of the issues panelists talked about was an outbreak of avian flu in people. Depending on the type of pandemic epidemic, Stanford has a plan in terms of what to do with its faculty and students and how to respond. He said local governments should all have similar plans. Do we?
Shapiro asked if we knew what a "quarantine" would involve if there were such a worldwide outbreak. The virus could mutate and new vaccines would have to be developed. Millions of lives could be lost in the interim. Are we prepared to shut our borders, ground our airlines, close down stores, and literally isolate ourselves by staying at home, she asked? A quarantine could last three to six months, she said. It would change the world as we know it. Scary thoughts.
North Korea's probable nuclear bomb explosion was another scary discussion. Perry called the bomb "very bad news," and a bad signal to Iran, because it could start a nuclear arms race in both Asia and the Middle East. North Korea, he said, easily may have the capacity to build 110 bombs a year.
Shultz, who labeled this "a crisis," urged that the U.S. do three things reinstate talks with North Korea and the other six neighboring nations so that we have "high-level energetic diplomacy"; consider a naval blockade against North Korea, and be willing to follow through with force.
Koppel countered by asking whether force worked in Afghanistan and Iraq and whether we have learned any lessons, to which Shultz replied, "Are you trying to argue that force never works?"
Shultz then urged robust diplomacy backed by force, and force was defined as economic, political and military in nature.
While pessimism prevailed during the two-hour-long discussion, Schultz did point out we had much to be grateful for: The economies of most nations were improving, and we were all living a lot longer.
So it was a heady Saturday morning. International issues became very local, since five out of the eight participants live right in our area, and all attended Stanford.
And there were several good one-liners:
"It used to be that voters picked legislators. Now (through gerrymandering) legislators pick voters."
"How many times do we have to be hit on the head with a two-by-four until we take determined steps to use less oil?"
"There is a struggle in the U.S. today between our desire and perceived need for security, and how that is having an impact on our privacy and our constitutional rights. I am very worried about that."
"We don't want to become like the terrorists. We need to preserve our civil liberties."
"There is no continuity of ideas, no vision, no mission in our country."
"K-12 education is seriously broken in our country."
"We need to change the way our health care system works."
"We've had a lack of conversation with North Korea, plus we have a fairly busted model of the UN."