The relativity of some deaths

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Wed Feb 5 19:02:37 MST 2003

I find myself somewhere in the middle of the debate on this list over the
Columbia catastrophe and its political significance. I don't think the U.S.
space program can be completely distinguished from its military ambitions
and projects, but I also feel that rejoicing over the U.S. space setback can
only alienate those masses of working people who saw it in primarily
personal terms. The following self-published column by Stephen Gowans in my
opinion captures the contradiction that we should be trying to convey to our
co-workers. A workers' newspaper would have carried an editorial or
front-page column along these lines.

What's Left
February 5, 2003

When a child screams in Baghdad, will anybody hear?

By Stephen Gowans

The deaths of seven astronauts is a catastrophe, an event to be pored over
and grieved. But the deaths of thousands of Afghans, and the future deaths
of possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, is barely noticed in the West,
and is hardly considered a catastrophe. Instead, it's just one of those
largely invisible tragedies, like death from starvation or from preventable
disease that carry off numberless people every day, in out of the way Third
World places we don't worry about, because we don't notice them or because
we don't see them, or maybe can't notice them and can't see them.

We call these tragedies "regrettable," because that's what you're supposed
to call them, but we don't really feel much regret, except maybe in a kind
of intellectual way, as if we're saying, "Well, it's not the kind of thing
I'd wish upon my enemy, but what happens, happens, and there's no point in
obsessing about it."

The deaths of seven astronauts, which must have been terrifying and violent,
or the deaths of 3,000 people on Sept. 11, cruel, brutal, and horrible --
that hits home, for those people are more like us than the dark skin people
are, who dress in strange ways, and speak a language we can't understand,
and live in a country headed by a man who, we're told, is evil, and wishes
us harm.

These people are not Americans, not Canadians, not Westerners, not
Christians, not Jews, which may be why their deaths are barely noticed, and
are called "regrettable" rather than "intolerable" or "criminal." But what
would you call the killing of tens of thousands of people, dismembered,
blown apart, incinerated, ex-sanguinated, starved (as is very likely to
happen in Iraq) if this was engineered by a country that had launched an
attack on the basis of a doctrine of pre-emptive war that owed much to the

And so it is that everywhere we look -- in newspapers, on television -- the
deaths of seven astronauts count for infinitely more than the impending
deaths of seven thousand, or seven hundred thousand, who may be human, but
who, in the universe of concentric circles which define how close any other
person is to ourselves, occupy the farthest rings, the Plutos in our own
personal solar systems.


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