On the right, pundits and politicians have cultivated a persistent cold-war-style alarmism about our foreign enemies — Vladimir Putin one week, Hugo Chavez the next, Kim Jong-il the week after that.

On the left, there’s an enduring fascination with the pseudo-Marxist vision of global capitalism as an enormous Ponzi scheme, destined to be undone by peak oil, climate change, or the next financial bubble…

These paranoias suggest a civilization that’s afraid to reckon with its own apparent permanence. The end of history has its share of discontents — anomie, corruption, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” And it may be that the only thing more frightening than the possibility of annihilation is the possibility that our society could coast on forever as it is — like a Rome without an Attila to sack its palaces, or a Nineveh without Yahweh to pass judgment on its crimes…

Not that we want to experience this destruction ourselves. But we want it to be at least a possibility — as a spur to virtue, and as a punishment for sin.