The Oppenheimer Syndrome
Bartlet's thoughts after telling Sam (and the others) about his MS.
I’ve noticed in literature that people do a lot of reading outside of books–– mainly in other people, to be precise. I’ve read a lot of books, written a few, and lately I’ve been reading people, too. Too much of people, and my own damn fault.
Oppenheimer -- he might understand. Manhattan Project. Old Harry Truman didn’t even know it existed when he took office in ‘45, but it didn’t stop him from using the A-bomb that August. Oppenheimer worked on that. No idea, no idea what it was they were doing. I’d guess that here, fifty-plus years later, we should know. We should be familiar with the destruction caused by secrecy, by using powerful things against humanity, which in its power is weak because it has no strength for self-control. Oppenheimer might understand.
He might understand because he too forgot what he was doing, passed over how it would affect people. And yet, when it came to the last tier, to the trial explosion, it blew up in his face just as much as my choice blew up in mine.
“Leo.” Mine’s a quiet utterance that seems loud and out of place in this dark circle.
Always there, Leo, my friend.
“You told him?”
“Yes.” How could I not? For all this time it had been so easy to shut it up, to bury it deep. But when a sore is opened, it comes pouring out, and I suppose this has done the same. It was hard though.
“How’d he take it?”
“How’d the others take it?”
“Not well.” Gift of understatement with a helping of brevity, served family style. That’s how, McGarry.
“Well, how d’ya think he took it?”
Not well. He didn’t have to look into another pair of eyes and say those words, utter the hidden of years, read that betrayal, that hurt, that anguish, not once, but several times. But then, I read Leo those ways, too. I’m so tired. My eyes ache from reading, my fingers have too often come near the bridge of my nose. And I made this for myself, and I sit here thinking how Oppenheimer might understand.
Leo’s too good for me. Abbey is, too. Hell, at this point I’d be willing to bet a lot of people are. And yet they all sit here worrying about me.
“You alright, Sir?”
I see the concern, and I know I have lost the right to it. But I like having it, I enjoy it just the same.
“You remember Oppenheimer, Leo?”
“Never met him, but, yes, I know who he was.”
“Is, Leo. His project is here and, as much as he’d rather not, because it’s here he’s here.” Then am I damned.
“Remember that story about when the bombs went off in testing?”
“Yes sir, I think I know what it is you’re talking about.”
“Right after they went off, after those bombs went off.”
He’s worried. He’s running every political scenario through his head. He doesn’t realize I’ve been through them already, that here, in the dark, in this office, in this building, that at this moment, I just don’t give a damn about politics. Right now, I’m thinking about those eyes, four sets recently, all the other pairs before, all those eyes like books and my own not ready to drink in their meaning, but not being able to help it. “Right after those bombs, do you remember what he did?” Of course he does.
“He quoted the Baghavad Gita.” Good, Leo, still sharp.
“Remember the words?” All those eyes. Leo sees them, but he doesn’t understand them the way I do. He can’t read them because he didn’t write them, he didn’t write those feelings. And how could he read what I had written in his, too?
“Yes, Mr. President. I remember the words.” He doesn’t want to say them. I don’t blame him -- he figures I’m off half-cock right now and don’t need to hear them. Well, I don’t, but it hasn’t stopped the voice inside my head, and even if I don’t need them, I deserve them. You don’t want to say it, Leo? Alright, then I will.
“He quoted the Baghavad Gita, you say, Leo, and I say, you are correct. He looked at the destruction, at the mess, at the rubble. He looked at it and saw his own handiwork. He looked at it and saw that all that was left was pain and hurt, despair and desolation -- yes, my friend, desolation. He looked at it and quoted from the Holy Book of Hinduism. And his words were these: ‘I am become death, a destroyer of worlds.’ Strangely appropriate, don’t you think, Leo?”
His eyes are wide and read again and see undeserved worry. “Sir, why don’t you get some sleep?”
“Oppenheimer was right, Leo.” Leo didn’t see their worlds crumbling in their eyes. Leo had only the inkling of how deep the cut. He hadn’t caused it. He didn’t understand what it was like.
“Go to bed, sir.”
Interesting concept, that the Destroyer should rest. Makes sense, I suppose; after all, the Creator did.
Oppenheimer had looked at his work and seen it for what it was. The A-bomb started new wars and ended an old one at the same time. It was great and it was terrible. Covering up the MS. What a hateful disease that must be covered. I ran anyway even as I bounded towards the finish line, because I had something to offer, and that seemed to matter more at the time. What was it Josh and Sam called me? The real thing? I was so real I lied and deceived and evaded. And I thought it that because it was for a good reason -- hell, for a reason period -- that it was alright. Well, it wasn’t.
And I should have known better.
What does it mean to find out your lofty end can’t justify the means of getting there? What does it do to a man to realize the greater good can kill something in the people he cares about? It’s impossible to explain. I didn’t really understand what it is to see something die before eyes looking into my own. And even as I grieve the loss, I know I am the murderer.
When he saw that bomb explode, and he realized what he had done, just as I am forced to realize now every time I look at them, he saw the truth of his deeds. And I see a truth I wish I did not know about myself. I had always considered myself a peaceful man. Is it ever man who finds within himself some murderous impulse, something which destroys that which he ought to value about all things? I can only hope not, can only hope that earthly flesh can remain pure and good. I wish that there were some way to recover, but everything is broken. Who can understand what it is to be the destroyer? I have seen myself, and know why I am alone.
But maybe Leo did understand; he, too, had destroyed worlds with his own struggles.
Return to Nzie’s homepage
Our authors appreciate comments on their stories. If you would like to send comments on this story, click on the author’s name at the top of this page.