Saturday, February 01, 2003

Fare Thee Well Columbia

As I’ve written in this forum before, I’ve had unease about Space Shuttle missions ever since September 11, 2001. The space program is a symbol of all things American and the vulnerabilities associated with space travel make it an inviting target for asymmetrical warfare. The presence of an Israeli citizen on the current mission increased this feeling of unease in me. But I was, and still am, convinced security was sufficient to prevent any terrorist interference.

This morning’s news initially gave me that same sick feeling I had on September 11. Gnawing anxiety colored with a vague yet growing sense of outrage. But the circumstances of the Columbia’s fiery reentry into the atmosphere seem to rule out a conventional terrorist incident. It was traveling too fast and too high to be reached by surface-to-air missile or to be interfered with by a passenger aircraft.

Of course this reassurance does nothing to lessen the human tragedy we’re now in the first stages of experiencing. NASA astronauts are truly the best and the brightest among us and the loss of seven of them is ... well, it’s just that - a loss. A loss of their potential, their scientific knowledge and skill, their future accomplishments, their courage, their example of success through achievement. It’s a loss to all of us.

“Us” being all of the world. As is typical of Americans, we invite the best and brightest from the rest of the world to join us in our endeavors of discovery and in furthering the progress of mankind. Today’s mission included Ilan Ramon, the Israeli pilot. Past missions have included men and women from all over the world, the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia , Brazil and many more. People whose own governments don’t allow for the exploration of space, because their economic systems don’t produce the requisite wealth, their societies don’t allow for the freedom necessary for scientific inquiry, and their leaders don’t have the courage or vision to take the inherent risks of the enterprise. But those brave, brilliant individuals from anywhere in the world who dare to try are all invited here, to pursue their dreams, side-by-side with us.

Which makes some of the International reaction I’ve heard so far a little dismaying. Listening to the C-SPAN open phone lines this morning, a couple of citizens of Canada called in. Both of them had basically the same comments. They remembered the Challenger tragedy back in 1986 and said they felt great sadness then. But they feel differently this time. Yes, they clinically acknowledge the human tragedy for the families involved, then each of them said they could not feel any sympathy for the United States. The reason, because of what George Bush is doing to the world and where he’s leading this country. The tone of their voices expressed an almost gleeful “I told you so” attitude.

Even though I’ve become used to European and American Left insouciance toward what I consider imminent threats to our security (be it Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, it doesn’t matter, it seems they’re against any American action), I was taken aback by these comments. The cynicism and reflexive hatred necessary for them to come to their conclusions is appalling. Furthermore, to be motivated within an hour of the tragedy occurring to get on the phone and tell the people of America that we aren’t deserving of the world’s sympathy, it simply leaves me nonplussed.

I’ll grant that C-SPAN call in shows tend to attract extremists of every stripe, so perhaps the citizens of our dear neighbor to the North don’t widely hold this feeling. But it says something about something that I can’t be sure about that anymore.

It will be interesting to hear the reactions of the governments who have sought to subvert American interests of late. Will they respond as true friends with unconditional support? Or will they merely mouth perfunctory expressions of sympathy and then try to use the moment to send the message that we cannot count on their support if we do not subvert our own national security interests to their own. Rest assured, Canada, Germany, France, we’ll be watching very carefully.

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