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 Mourning in America 

February 4, 2003

I guess I reached the limit of my patience Monday morning, when Katie Couric, our national grief counselor, asked the stunned parents of one of the lost astronauts if the “enormity” of their son’s death had hit them yet. Of all the rude, stupid, presumptuous, intrusive questions I’ve ever heard, this takes the cake. My guess is that it hit them Saturday morning.

Can we stop the fake mourning now? The families of the dead have some real mourning to do. President Bush calls the Columbia disaster “a great national tragedy” — a phrase more aptly applied to, say, the Civil War. Most of us hardly knew these people existed, and few of us could name even one of them.

Oddly enough, Miss Couric is one of those few: she had gone to high school, a few miles from where I’m sitting now, with the son of the grieving parents she interviewed. You’d think that would make her a little more sensitive. Instead she adopted the “traumatized” expression she wears when her wonted perkiness would be inappropriate, and asked a question so tactless as to shock any viewer in his senses.

Like a school-bus accident across the continent, the space-shuttle wreck is horrifying to imagine; but why pretend it’s a personal loss for all Americans? I suppose people in public life, including the media, have to speak of it with proper gravity and respect, but the hyperbole of shared grief in this country is out of control.

[Breaker quote: Grieving for strangers]The space program long ago lost its original glamour; we now call it a “program,” something routine and bureaucratic, because we no longer think of it as a “mission.” It began in earnest in 1957, with the electrifying news that the Soviet Union had successfully launched a satellite. The Cold War dictated that we “catch up.” Our first astronauts became heroes and celebrities. Every step in the race to the moon was sensational. The historic first moon landing, in 1969, was so exciting that everything after it seemed anticlimactic. Space travel had long since ceased to inspire our awe and wonder by last Saturday morning; we’d stopped paying much attention to it, or to the individual astronauts.

On Sunday morning, the fanatically Zionist New York Post supplied a bit of grim comedy. It featured the Israeli astronaut alone on page 6, with a special article, and crammed pictures of all the American gentiles onto page 7. The Post has its priorities, even in mourning.

By coincidence, I’d recently seen two televised scenes of genuine poignancy, also featuring total strangers. They didn’t need exaggeration in order to reach the heart.

Last week a news story from Baghdad showed a man holding his little boy and begging the United States not to attack his country. It was impossible not to be moved by this man’s desperate plea for mercy, whoever he was; and it cast a strange light on Bush’s endlessly professed indignation that Saddam Hussein has “gassed his own people.” I leave you to guess how sincere Bush’s sympathy for those people is.

And on Sunday night, 60 Minutes did a segment on North Korea, showing the unbelievable cruelty of Kim Jong Il’s regime. By diverting all his country’s wealth to building his military power, he has reduced the general population to near-starvation. And actual starvation. We were shown the results in shots of famished children with dull, hollow faces and arms like sticks, of a 15-year-old boy the size of a 10-year-old. They have never known joy, but they are taught that Kim is their benefactor. He makes Saddam Hussein seem like a philanthropist. At least the Iraqis are eating.

Kim has turned North Korea into a gigantic concentration camp. Unlike most Communist tyrants, he hardly pretends to have bettered the lot of his subjects; he doesn’t even hide his personal greed and privilege. In his country it’s not the state that “withers away,” as in Marxist theory, but the people. The 60 Minutes segment showed small children eating insects to stay alive. Others regard eating a rat as a special treat. Bush’s humane sympathies are oddly distributed.

With all due respect to Stalin and Mao, Kim seems to have achieved the final perfection of Communism: a reverse utilitarianism, the greatest evil for the greatest number.

Sorry about those astronauts, but there are more urgent things to grieve about in this world.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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