Overreacting and Underreacting in Harrisburg

Since the nuclear near-catastrophe that occurred recently at the Three Mile Island reactor site near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I've read many accounts of what happened. But none of these accounts reported on what I saw firsthand. I was there in the state capitol building that morning, the thirtieth of March, when the nerve center of the Pennsylvania state government had its nervous breakdown.

I live about forty miles out of Harrisburg at Gita-nagari, ISKCON's Pennsylvania farm community. We were planning an outdoor summer festival in the city, so I was in town to see about getting the necessary permits and licenses. I had been to the police chief's office, and he had referred me to another office at the capitol building.

A receptionist in one of the offices on the second floor was trying to help me locate the right department. But as I told her what I needed, she just shook her head. "I think they might have sent you to the wrong place," she said.

An unusual amount of noise and commotion out in the hallway distracted me for a moment as I was puzzling over what I should do. "I think I'd better check my directions again," I said, when half a dozen workers from another office wandered in, talking excitedly among themselves. "Could I use your phone to check back with the chief of police?" I asked, raising my voice above the sudden stir. "He's the one that sent me up here."

"We can try, but all the lines are pretty tied up now, you know."

"No, I don't know," I said as she dialed. "What's going on?"

"You don't know? Well, you must be the only one. That nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island is acting up. It's been leaking radioactive steam since early Wednesday morning the largest leak in history. And now they just found a gas bubble inside the thing, and they say if it doesn't cool off, the gas might blow up." She seemed pleased to initiate a newcomer into the fearful situation. "I'm not afraid," she went on, "but that's what everyone else is so worried about. And that's why I can't get this call through. All the lines are tied up."

From her description it was hard to tell exactly how critical the situation was. But I was there on Krsna's business, so I had to get things done, despite tied-up phones or whatever.

But now the scene around me was changing. The entire office and maybe the entire building was in chaos.

One nervous fellow came running up to the desk. Trembling almost out of control, he shrieked, "What are they going to do about this?!"

The receptionist told him not to worry, that Governor Thornburgh was going to be on the radio in a few minutes to tell people what to do in case of an evacuation.

"They caused this," the man said. "Now what are they going to do about it?"

"I'm not afraid of radiation," she interrupted. "I had radiation treatment six months ago. Anyway, my nephew told me all about it. He used to deal with the stuff. He says there's not a thing in the world for me to worry about."

But the man kept demanding to know what "the fools who got us into this mess in the first place" were going to do about it.

The room was becoming really congested now, as men and women from the other offices came in, talking excitedly about leaving their jobs, or trying to call their families on the office telephone.

Then a woman in her late thirties walked in, stiffly swinging her purse. With an air of authority, she went up to the receptionist and told her to notify the other offices that anyone who wanted could go home and wouldn't be docked any pay. She opened her purse and took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. "What am I doing? I've got to get out of here. I've got to call somebody and have them pick up my kids. I've got to pack everything." Trying to soften her tone, "If anyone asks for me … just tell them I left." And she swung her purse over her shoulder and ran out.

The man who had been shaking so much was still around. He was pacing near one of the other desks, smoking and trying to listen to the governor's report on the radio. But he couldn't stand in one spot long enough to listen. He kept walking away and talking to the others, spreading his confusion.

Actually, no one really stopped long enough to hear that announcement. They had already concluded that their lives were in danger and that they should save themselves. "I'm not going to stay around here waiting to die," someone was saying. "I'm taking my wife and kids and going back to Ohio."

Another man stuck his head through the doorway and announced, "Did you people know that fifty feet beneath the foundation of this building is a radiation-proof chamber for the governor and his friends?" Then they all began loudly discussing that. (The governor and 225 other big political leaders could live for 4 days in their underground offices.) At this point I excused myself.

As I walked down the hall, I saw more of the same confusion and overheard more talk about "saving yourself." Out in front of the capitol building, I saw a secretary running for her life, with a handkerchief over her nose and mouth.

Police sirens were screaming from all directions as I pulled out into the heavy flow of traffic and made my way slowly along. Service stations were all filled with cars fueling for the getaway. I pulled in beside a phone booth to call the farm.

There was a man ahead of me trying to get in touch with his wife. He was telling someone to give her a message. "We've got to get out of here as soon as possible," he explained. "The radio says that things aren't critical and the governor will tell us if it's necessary to leave. Of course, they say no one's supposed to breathe the air, either whatever that means. Anyway, I'm not going to hang around to see what's going to happen." Then he hung up the receiver and started pacing back and forth and craning his neck to see if his wife had come even though he'd just hung up less than ten seconds before.

I couldn't get my call through, but it seemed useless to stay in Harrisburg. The radio reports had advised people to stay indoors, and anyway, the government offices weren't functioning. So I headed back to the farm. Once I was out of the city, the congestion on the highway began to clear.

As I drove I was thinking about what I'd just witnessed. Although nothing is as sure as death, it always seems to come as a big surprise, and no one knows what to do. "Oh! We've got to get the kids at school, pack our bags, stop by the bank, gas up the car, and get out of here. . . ." (So in Ohio people don't have to die?)

The threat of nonexistence creates a fearful situation for all of us because actually we're eternal. It's just that out of ignorance we've identified ourselves with our material bodies. Out of ignorance we've become attached to this temporary life as all in all. And out of ignorance we suffer life after life, in different species. Now, in the human form, we have the rare chance to get free from ignorance and understand our actual, spiritual selves and our relationship with the Supreme. Yet most people aren't interested (until it's too late).

But as the Vedic literatures point out, only by reawakening our relationship with the Supreme can we leave death (and the cycle of death and rebirth) behind. For years the devotees have been distributing transcendental literature and talking with the people of Harrisburg about solving life's ultimate problem, yet they never seemed terribly interested. Perhaps they took us to be some kind of religious sect out proselytizing. It seemed self-realization was low priority for people with so much important business. But today they would surely have agreed with the Vedic literatures that saving yourself from death is the most important business in life.

I rolled down the window for a breath of the fresh country air. You don't need nuclear power or even electricity to be happy, I was thinking. The people at Gita-nagari farm are satisfied without. all the gadgets and gimmicks of this short-lived technological age. The life-style is simple: plowing the fields with oxen and taking care of cows and making use of their abundant milk. At the same time the philosophy is sublime: trying to understand that everyone is an eternal spiritual being, a servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna.

When I got back, the other devotees and I discussed what had happened. A laugh or two, but mostly it was serious. Everyone saw the urgent need for making America Krsna conscious. And everyone went back to work with new vitality. It was going to be quite a job.