As we sit down to our traditional Thanksgiving dinner, in the second year of this war of cultures that has been thrust upon us, it would be appropriate to reflect on just what it was those who originated this custom were grateful for.

Almost four centuries ago, the Separatist Pilgrims of Massachussetts had suffered their first harsh New England winter, one that saw the deaths of almost half of their colony, partly due to their lack of knowledge of how to survive in an environment so different from their native one. However, with the help of some friendly natives, they had put in a successful crop in the spring, and were much better prepared for the upcoming winter. Thus they made a feast to celebrate.

But they were celebrating much more than their mere survival and well being.

They had recently come from the Dutch city of Leyden, to which they had fled over a decade earlier from southeastern England, to avoid persecution by the Church of England. In Holland, they were not persecuted, but their children were losing their English ways, and they thus decided to go to America.

While hardly a model of religious tolerance themselves, as the second winter approached, they were not just surviving--they were doing so in a land in which they had their own charter, and could govern themselves. They could worship as they desired, with no more oppression from the Church, and they could raise their children in their own customs and tongue.

Sadly, the daily headlines remind us that religious intolerance and oppression are not just dusty facts in history books.

The men who toppled the twin towers last year did it in the name of their God. The organizer of the recent atrocity in Bali, in which hundreds of tourists died, sagely, and without sympathy, enlightened the western world as follows:

"My message to the families is please convert to Islam as soon as possible."

This past week, hundreds of people were brutally murdered in Nigeria over a single sentence in a newspaper discussing the Miss World pageant to be held there. Practitioners of Islam rioted and attacked Christian churches and killed Christian people simply because they were upset at what they perceived to be blasphemy. A fatwah was issued against the reporter who authored the offending words, and she has since gone into hiding.

Of course, religious intolerance can be found all over the world between many religions, and we are not at war with Islam per se. But it's becoming very clear that a significant part of the Islamic world is at war with us. It is a war we did not start, but it won't be over until we finish it.

Fortunately, as it was four hundred years ago, America remains a haven from religious oppression, and for that we should be as grateful at our dinner tables as were those Pilgrims of long ago.

But it may not always be so, particularly if we falter in our war with those to whom the very notions of pluralism and tolerance are anathema.

The Pilgrims and other emigrants from Europe went to what they called a New World. But there are no more new worlds on this planet--it's pretty much all spoken for. There are no more places that are, in the words of the Pilgrims, "devoyd of all civill inhabitants [sic]." If the last bastions of freedom on earth were to fall, where would the oppressed of the future go?

Fortunately, it's a big universe, and just our solar system alone has material and energy enough to build a thousand new earths in terms of land area. A few months ago, I wrote a column, tongue emplaced firmly in cheek, about creating a new Zionist homeland for the Jews on the Moon.

But it wasn't entirely tongue in cheek. As technology continues to advance, particularly the techniques of molecular manufacturing, the notion of building new homes and homelands out of indigenous resources, and free of earthly governments, will lose its current sense of absurdity.

While both the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of Israel feel a religious tie to the Holy Land of earth, many will be happy to construct new nations and communities off world. Space may be to the 21st and 22nd centuries what the Americas were to the previous four, and as far as we know, this time there are no natives to displace. Instead, it will allow a thousand diverse societies to bloom, with no need, at least from a land or resources standpoint, to covet others' territory.

Unfortunately though, until we can rid man of the need to bend others to his own beliefs, conflict will probably remain, even in the face of vast material wealth.

But I still like to envision a future family sitting down to a feast made from extraterrestrial bounty, perhaps in a dining room with a view of a planet other than earth down below. And before they eat, they give thanks for their ability to live their own lives as they wish, free from the tyranny and oppression of others, if only for a while, like those Englishmen and Englishwomen of long ago.

Letters

With regard to last week's column in which I pointed out that NASA sometimes discourages optimism about the future (and makes it more difficult for entrepreneurs to find investment), reader Joe Gurman notes:

One small niggle: "science.nasa.gov" is a publication of, by and for the Marshall Space Flight Center science directorate. It is not owned by, nor does it express the opinions of, the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters (so much for "one NASA").

Yes, I wasn't careful in making the distinction. I should also note that several people told me that the good people who write that website have updated it. Instead of "decades away" as a likely timeframe for a viable space tourism industry, it now says "some years off." I wouldn't argue with that, given that "some" is not a very specific number. But thanks to the magic of caches and other web sites, the original version can still be viewed at Space Daily.

Anyway, it's nice to see squeaky wheels get greased, whether due to this column or by others pointing out the same problem.

Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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