The State Loves Its Own

The 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.

It 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.

Is 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.

The 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.

The 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 funerals!

It 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.

Do 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!

February 3, 2003

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