Space Shuttle Columbia: Are We Really United in Mourning?

At the risk of sounding heartless, I confess that I am not in a
state of terrible mourning over the loss of the space shuttle Columbia,
nor do I find myself paralyzed with grief for the seven brave and
talented souls who perished in its final fiery disintegration over
Texas. I haven’t shed any tears or lost any sleep, and though
the experience of seeing the footage on television was harrowing,
it has not brought me any closer to my fellow Americans, any more
than passing a nasty car wreck on the highway would.

I do not agree with New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s
statement that watching the events of Saturday morning unfold was
akin to "watching the loss of our better selves," nor
do I consider his characterization of astronauts in general as "the
last unspoiled American heroes… They have come to embody whatever
remains of the American ideal," to be of any value whatsoever.
When later in the column he claims that astronauts "save us"
from having to "look in the mirror and see something low and
mean," I begin wondering if I’m reading satire.

All of it is effectively bunk, of course, as earlier in the column
Mr. Herbert admits that these days no one pays attention to astronauts
until they’re claimed by tragedy. So then, would it be safer
to say that dead astronauts, instead of living ones, are the "embodiment
of the American ideal"? Does one have to be dead in order to
be a hero, or is the bestowal of hero status simply a way to lessen
the guilt over past neglect? Are astronauts the new firefighters?

If Mr. Herbert’s reaction was runny, the Boston Globe’s
reaction was nearer to hysterical. Sunday’s paper included
an entire section dedicated to the crash entitled, "The Columbia
Shuttle Disaster," and if a few of the eighteen stories verged
on the bathetic, they were eclipsed mightily by the headline, "Voices
of Sorrow: Once again under a cloudless sky, occasion for a nation
to join in grief."

The very idea that the Columbia is in any way analogous to September
11 is absurd, lending credence to the suspicion that as a nation
America has lost the ability to suffer tragedy with anything resembling
perspective, saneness or dignity, becoming consumed instead by garish
public outpourings of institutionalized grief that quite often border
on the pornographic.

Certainly the terms Mr. Herbert, The Globe and likeminded
others deploy in order to pay sufficient tribute to the
fallen astronauts sound a great deal like those used to honor the
firefighters murdered on September 11: this notion of modest, big-hearted
and courageous men and women toiling in obscurity, not for personal
gain, not even for the sole benefit of America, but for the good
of humanity at large.

Beyond the obvious problems with this way of thinking, and the
hazards of idealizing people to the extent where they become more
you than them, there is a fundamental ignorance
behind this portrayal of astronauts as selfless and sacrificial
Everymen (as though that were the only way to endear them to the
masses). For starters, just because we didn’t know who they
were doesn’t mean they were unsung, nor does it mean they
went uncompensated for their efforts. These weren’t garbage
men we’re talking about here, these people got to visit space,
which is a hell of a lot more than the rest of us will ever do.

So how about we try a more moderate national reaction? This, perhaps:
These seven were extraordinary people, intelligent, driven and spurred
on by a noble thirst for knowledge and adventure; they had the opportunity
to go to space, understood the significant risks involved, spun
the wheel and never came back. It was sad but not senseless. Their
families and friends will miss them, shuttle technology may be improved
because of them, and the rest of us will get on with our lives,
resisting the urge to overcompensate with the morbid fanfare, unconcerned
with being seen by the low and the mean as insufficiently sad.

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