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How We Think About Tragedy
In Dissent, Number Eighty-Six
by Brian S. Wise
4 February 2003

In our consideration of the Columbia and its crew, perhaps something is being missed.

When Challenger exploded, I was in school (for a change). There had been a certain math teacher who, because he was color blind and single, was left alone to dress himself in unusually bright colors and plaid, the results often delighting the student body. On the morning of 28 January 1986, our fifth (?) hour class had just broken for lunch when I spotted this teacher standing near the exit, holding a small transistor radio to his ear. Two female students walked past him and asked what he was listening to, not an unusual question, as personal electronics were not allowed on the floor. “The space shuttle exploded,” he said. The nature of the man was so ludicrous to every child there, it was taken as a joke, and the girls laughed before taking off for lunch.

By the time way was made to the lunchroom, no more than three or four minutes later, the average chaos endemic of any gathering of young people had been replaced by odd quiet and the sort of hushed conversation typical of speculation and disbelief. Rarely in my life had time passed so slowly, and rarely have I ever paid so little attention to the tasks at hand before the chance to get home and turn on the television. The expression on Brokaw’s face is still burned on my mind – by that point the reporting had gone on for some hours, and he still looked so somber. The break-up had been, until the Tragedies, my generation’s Kennedy assassination – the singular moment where, no matter what other incidents or disasters came and went, we would always remember where we were and what we were doing. And the memories have remained, through a near-death experience, head injury, and years worth of recollections otherwise lost as a result of both.

That is how we remember great tragedies, by putting them on parallel with those that have occurred within our personal experience, and for the rest of our lives. We take genuine solace in the fact those on board may not have suffered in their deaths, a compassion legitimately lent, and we establish funds in the names of the children left behind, because even though money cannot replace Mom or Dad, the basic fear of losing your parents in childhood is well understood by everyone. It is our moral superiority – not necessarily unique in the face of the world, but greatly distinguished – that compels us to look after those left behind as best we can, from whatever distances and by whatever means available. (We certainly are not suggesting that the deaths of these six Americans and one Israeli Jew was God’s punishment for not supporting backwards, toilet ideologies.)

Columnists are struck by how best to respond to large, sudden tragedies. Whatever can be said of his talent, those things upon which the columnist is normally commentating have either passed or are developing at such a rate where certain assessments can be safely made, given certain time restrictions. Predisposed to criticism above praise, the columnist often wonders how best to offer praise, choosing in many cases (as you have no doubt read in the last few days) to go on about the loss of life, a disastrous enough thing to warrant however many words are necessary for that day’s deadline. And, of course, we should speak at some eloquent length about the loss of life.

But we should also waste no time discussing the greatness of Man and its ingenuity, which (with nothing more than a presidential mandate) set into motion an apparatus that not only lead to human beings setting foot on the Moon, but lead to scientific advances that touch each and every one of our lives every day, and will throughout the remainder of time. The great shame of space exploration is that we have become so warm to sustained excellence, hardly any attention is ever paid to our successes, only the failures – Challenger, the Hubble telescope, Columbia, et cetera. (One could include the Mir space station in with these, but no one ever logically expects sustained excellence from the Russians, and in the case of Mir, weren’t disappointed.)

We should think of tragedy in terms of the lives lost and those otherwise effected, but we should also take some time to lend grand credence to the overall good contributed to by those seven astronauts, and the fine tradition of excellence to which they contributed. If we cannot do at least this, simply mourning their deaths seems an incomplete gesture.

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