Hail Columbia

Posted: Feb 05, 2003 12:00 AM
For weeks, the United Nations wolf pack has bayed and snapped as the United States moved nearer the deposition of Saddam Hussein. The Americans, the Americans -- their power, their pride, their sense of themselves at the apex and center of everything! So it has gone, and may continue some while longer, beyond our present powers of remediation. The Columbia disaster reminds us of many things, starting with the fragility of human enterprises in general. But it prompts us no less urgently to reflection on something that is special about the people called Americans. That thing is not some national mania to strut and dominate. It is the willingness and the courage to venture and risk and reach out, because, supposedly, that is what life is for -- venturing, risking, reaching out. Off goes a human payload into space, vulnerable in a way no groundlings, craning their necks upward, can start to fathom. Who else does things like this? Forget "does." Who else tries such things? Do the North Koreans or the Iraqis? Do the Germans, for that matter? The French? Not so. Nobody else tries -- if, as we must and should, we allow for the broadest possible definition of what it means to be "American." With their five American-born mission mates on Columbia went an Israeli pilot and also a scientist born in India who changed her citizenship to American. We gather from such data -- a sniff of a piece of a hint -- that while the American identity is physical, rooted in place, so also is it a matter of place-less spirit. Something inside an individual determines the American-ness of his orientation. An Israeli pilot and an Indian-born scientist, operating alongside Americans, can claim it. It would seem in fact the smallest entitlement that is due them -- recognition of ultimate solidarity with their lost crewmates. For Americans, wherever born, life is a thing to be fixed, bettered, maybe taken apart and reassembled, new parts agleam. This is not always good. It can sometimes be bad. It can inspire needless meddling and wheel reinventing. It can overthrow old principles of prudence. It remains, for all that, a quantifiable fact of American life. And it has an undeniable upside. We might have waited a long time indeed for the rest of the world to figure out that an energetic program of space exploration was in the human interest. There was also of course the matter of the resources with which to launch such a program. Yet for there to exist the can-do-ness, there must first be available the want-to-ness. There must be imagination, daring and a willingness not to count the cost. When you have such commodities (conspicuously possessed by small, bold Portugal and England in sea-faring times), the resources magically create themselves. A job worth doing will get done. What were the crew of the Columbia doing up in the sky that fatal Saturday? Being Americans -- leading, showing the way. Americans, not North Koreans, the latter being too busy at the time working to create the means of intimidating neighbors. Not the Iraqis, for sure, focused on hiding evidence of preparation for chemical warfare. And not al Qaeda. Murderers have time only for murder. Never mind what obstinate enemies and pusillanimous allies may say: The difference between the United States and the axis of evil is the difference between creation and destruction, celebration and negation, courage and gaseous bravado. The latter, like the former, are human traits. It is vital all the same to notice the gap between them -- the gap of spirit. The United States, by means of its economic and scientific resources, and its generosity in sharing them, is an international benefactor. Americans seek to open minds; their foes wish to open wounds -- fatal ones, preferably. David Brown, Ilan Ramon, Rick Husband, Kalpana Chawla, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Laurel Salton Clark -- wherever they first saw dawn's early light, the American spirit was there. It never left them. Hail Columbia.