Now it is Chernobyl that lights up on our international map of anxiety. Chernobyl. Bhopal. Three Mile Island. Places that explode out of anonymity. For the half-life of our own attention span such names become shorthand for disaster.
There is an eerie quality to this technological horror story. Like a reverse lesson in political geography, the closer you get to the scene, the less is known.
In Stockholm, 800 miles away, children are warned not to drink the rainwater. In Poland families line up for iodine. But in Kiev, 60 miles downstream from the atom plant, there is more said about May Day than nuclear mayhem.
This vast knowledge gap struck some familiar chord. Exactly a year ago, in Moscow, I had a conversation with a young journalist who acted as interpreter. After a session with three bureaucrats, which bored him as much me, we went to a local coffee shop and talked about journalism and censorship.
Andre was among the elite of his Soviet generation. He was informed about America -- down to our frequent- flyer coupons -- and not reflexively defensive about the Soviet system. Yet, at one point, animatedly debating our countries' attitudes toward information, he reached for this analogy, "In the U.S.S.R. we do not tell a patient if he has cancer. Many times we treat people like they are children to be protected." It was clear that Andre approved.
During the next week, I asked other Soviets, including two doctors, whether such withholding was common. Yes, I was told, of course, it was for the good of the patient who might give up hope upon hearing such a forbidding word. Even a refusenik, a doctor in a local clinic who was opposed to so much in the system, agreed with this procedure. When I explained that, for the most part, American doctors now shared this information with the patient, she shook her head, "I think that is cruel."
So, when Chernobyl melted down and spewed out, it was no surprise that Swedes had to make the diagnosis with their own Geiger counters. Europeans, furious at Soviet radiation crossing their frontiers without a visa, were even angrier that it came without warning. They chalked it up to the Soviet mania for covering up mistakes. But I think it goes deeper than that, straight to the belief that the state should treat people "like they are children to be protected."
Openness is hardly a given in the United States. The management at Three Mile Island did not choose to broadcast its accident in exquisite and immediate detail. But in the Soviet Union, press and politicians have the same employer as the plant manager. They are part of the state's contract.
In return for giving up political will, the Soviet people are promised security. The state tris to deliver it, even when it has to be wrapped in lies, the lies that are told when a terrible truth is withheld.
The Soviet doctors that I met did not hesitate to tell their patients if they had a broken leg or the flu. The leaders, at least in this new "open" Gorbachev era, talk more freely about factory flaws and five-year-plan flops. They talk about what they can cure. It is only when confronted with something lethal that they revert to the protection racket. The impulse to shelter people from worry in fact shelters the authorities from being confronted with their own impotence, the broken contract.
What do we do in contrast? That same afternoon, Andre said, shaking his head in bewilderment, "You say, here is the information. Now, you are on your own." There is truth in that.
Americans are often overwhelmed by information. We suffer a glut of disasters, one following the other like headlines, Nightlines, all carrying the same weight. Tylenol and terrorism, astronauts and AIDS. We are spared few details of disaster and disease.
Americans are not promised protection. But we are given the information to demand it. It is indeed this demand that has stopped the building of new nuclear plants here.
In a disaster where the Soviets have dealt with "children," they have infuriated adults. Chernobyl has become a symbol of Soviet cover-up instead of a warning of what one, small and "peaceful" nuclear accident can mean to the world.
In the West, we are warned of the long, long-term effects of this disaster. The word that is spoken is cancer. I wonder what word the doctors will use when they treat the patients in the clinics near Chernobyl.