America's unsent distress signal
By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
As we pass important dates and anniversaries throughout the year, it is normal to find ourselves contemplating past events, previous years, and of course, comparing the current state of affairs to those long past.
Since I have no first-hand experience of anything before the ‘70's and ‘80's, I have to trust my predecessors and our history texts to access such important information, and even a different way of life, than my own. Not long ago I realized that by just observing or listening to those who had more experience and time on this earth than I (sometimes 40 or 50 years more), there would often be an unexpected pearl of wisdom or surprising bit of history, information that I suspect is very nearly extinct.
One such moment presented itself about five years ago. A long-time friend of ours, a man with a very intellectual, studious and political background, started wearing his American flag lapel pin upside-down. When we asked him if he was aware of the position of his lapel pin he said, "Of course!" He then proceeded to ask us if we knew what that actually meant and, since we didn't, explained that the flying of one's flag upside down is an internationally recognized distress signal, a mayday of sorts, without a radio. Curious, I asked what he knew, why he felt so strongly about our country. Although he was retired at that point, his background in intelligence would give him access to more information than the average civilian. In answer to my question he said that we already knew everything there was to know in order to come to the same realization that most of the population knew--it was just a matter of putting it together, believing it. A year later our friend and his wife left the country.
I find myself thinking of them often. But I also find myself thinking of an even stranger story---also true---that took place about twenty-six hundred years ago. The setting was the ancient Babylonian empire, near the time of their defeat by the Medo-Persian Empire. The Babylonians believed themselves and their capitol city to be indestructible, not only because the walls surrounding their city were an impregnable fortress but because of their military might. One night, King Belshazzar (the son of the famous king Nebuchadnezzar) was hosting a giant banquet with hundreds of his officials, generals, their wives and all of their servants. After imbibing and eating heavily, the king called for all the sacred golden cups that had been taken from the holy temple in Jerusalem about 50 years before, and started using them for wine goblets for all their guests. They started toasting and worshipping all of their gods and idols with the sacred vessels. Around midnight, at the height of their revelries, a disembodied hand suddenly appeared near a lampstand, hovered for a moment, and then began writing in the plaster on the wall. The king suddenly grew very pale and began trembling. As the hand disappeared he called all his wise men in, asking them what the writing meant. Not one of them could translate it, as it was written in ancient Aramaic. The queen mother, remembering that her husband Nebuchadnezzar used to seek the counsel of a very wise Israelite named Daniel, immediately summoned him. As Daniel read the letters he quickly understood them, and what the message actually meant. He turned to the king and explained that they were in grave danger. An approximate transliteration of the mysterious writing is, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uparshin---and as Daniel translated it, "Your days have been numbered. You have been weighed in the balances and are found wanting. Tonight, your kingdom will be divided among the Medes and Persians."
The king was very troubled, but was dubious as to any possible danger. What none of them knew was, that very night the Persian army dammed up the river which flowed under Babylon's massive walls, lowering the water levels, and the entire army crept under the walls, in the dark, and lay siege to the city in a surprise attack. By dawn the Medo-Persians had control of Babylon and King Belshazzar was dead.
This very dramatic, but historically accurate documentation of the fall of Babylon and Belshazzar's feast, has unfortunately become the template of a pattern repeated many times now over the last few thousand years. Empires have come and gone, following the same trends time after time. After military conquest comes a disturbing pattern of ignorance, arrogance, self-indulgence and then lazy indifference. Greece, Rome, the British Empire, Hitler's Germany and now, it seems, America. It is all there to be seen, for anyone looking. But just like standing on a sinking ship, if no one sends out a distress signal, nothing can be done to help; no one will even know there is a problem. Worse yet, to send a distress signal means that someone has to first recognize that there is a problem. If the captain of the capsizing vessel will not even accept the reality of impending death, believes himself and his ship to be indestructible, his refusal to send that distress signal will be his own doom and that of his crew as well.
Are we to be the next Babylon? Will our country fall, ignominiously, as so many others have? Will we realize, too late, that we are under siege by an enemy that has not allowed itself the luxury of falling asleep on the job? Have we vastly underestimated certain threats, both foreign and domestic, because our willfully ignorant leaders have lulled many of us into the same state? Is it too late for a rescue, and is that why many are leaving? Will this country's leadership be surprised when, one fine day, they read the handwriting on the wall and it says: "You have been weighed in the balances and are found wanting…"
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing. © 2016