The State Loves Its Own

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deaths of the crew of Columbia, which somehow disintegrated as it
was approaching its landing, have been adequately noted by others.
I have nothing to add to the general expression of surprise and
dismay. For the families, it was, of course, a tragedy.

is always especially sad when a loved one dies unexpectedly, which
must happen many times every day in America. In the case of Columbia,
there were seven deaths — a small fraction of the number of accidental
deaths on that date, but the only seven that were deemed worthy
of national media comment. Well, it is newsworthy indeed when a
space ship explodes, but the reporting of the event went beyond
just that. The seven victims were almost instantly designated “heroes”
who “gave their lives” for their mission. The Israeli who was among
them is being lauded as a particularly brave and heroic individual
whose death will plunge the entire nation of Israel into weeping
and gnashing of teeth, instead of a chap who just happened to be
there when the ship exploded.

a convenience-store clerk shot to death by a thief during a holdup
a “hero?” Did he “give his life” for his mission? The very question
is ridiculous. His death might be given brief mention in the local
ten o'clock news, but there will be little else said of him. Did
he die bravely? Had his father been a survivor of the King David
hotel bombing? Few will know or care.

reports of the Columbia disaster also spoke of the “important work”
of the astronauts. Of course, we're not told what that important
work was, other than that it consisted of a number of scientific
experiments. But these, too, are being done everyday in this country,
by nameless people whose deaths wouldn't be noted on page one of
the newspaper, or even page fifteen.

difference is the state connection. The astronauts were in a space
ship bearing the logo of the federal corporation: the stars and
stripes. The experiments they were performing were at the expense
of that corporation, and with its approval. They gave their lives
for their country! The convenience-store clerk who was shot to death
was as mourned by his family as was the Israeli astronaut, but he
was a nobody, of little value to the federal corporation. His work
wasn't important, although you might find that his family and customers
thought otherwise. And he won't get one of those spectacular he-was-one-of-us

would be too cynical to suggest that the biggest catastrophe about
the Columbia disaster, as far as Uncle Sam is concerned, is that
there are no remains to inter with one of those moving burials that
Uncle does so well! You've seen them on TV: the body of a soldier
“hero” who dies overseas is shipped home, and the pageant begins.
Never mind that his death resulted from his falling out of a jeep;
he will get the works: the military escort, twenty-one gun salute,
and, most poignantly, the elaborate folding of the flag which is
then presented to wife or mother, guaranteeing a flood of tears.
It is, to be sure, a heart-wrenching moment, but at least in part
because of the effective staging. Nobody in starched uniform will
attend the funeral of the convenience-store clerk, and no salute
will be fired, no flag folded.

you want to be a hero when you die? Go to work for The State. Let
it send you where it pleases, to do what it wants, putting your
life in jeopardy as it sees fit. If you survive, you'll get a nice
pension. If you die, you'll get the best-orchestrated funeral available,
and at no cost to your family, who will receive a neatly folded
flag as a memento. The State takes care of its own!

3, 2003

Hein [send
him mail
] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis,
and the author of All
Work & No Pay


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