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The space shuttle disaster brought home again the way that tragedy stifles criticism. Upon hearing of the disaster, the first response of nearly everyone was to eulogize, to affirm the wonder and importance of the space program. Where the loss of the Mars lander provoked an immediate burst of criticism of NASA's purposes and methods, the loss of Columbia and its crew did not. Only those well outside the mainstream of our culture -- conspiracy-mongers and others who are less integrated into our cultural community -- had anything to express but a sense of loss at the shuttle's demise. Almost two days later, analytical types such as professional and self-proclaimed pundits have been able to reestablish enough emotional distance from the disaster and public opinion of it to dig into the details of what went wrong and start discussing them more frankly. It's all a repetition in miniature of the pattern we saw after September 11 -- the immediate expression of loss and solidarity, recoiling from those who would want to analyze the attacks in the context of global politics. We needed analyses, of course, to make sense of what had happened, but they had to be analyses that affirmed our shared values. The public was willing to hear "they hate our freedom," but not to hear "they hate our imperialist foreign policy and the McDonaldization of their culture." All else becomes insensitive at best when People Died. Locating the discussion in the mundane world of power struggles and human stupidity seems to spit in the face of the people who experienced the most profound tragedy that can happen to a person, the sudden and involuntary ending of a life.

I suspect (in the ex recta fashion of a person not trained in psychology) part of the reason we have this reaction to tragedy is its uncontrollable nature. Disasters seem to come from outside, not created by the internal workings of the system. And we want to see things that way, because an "act of God" absolves us of guilt that could compound the loss. Faced with tragedy, we feel a strong need to clarify the boundary between inside and outside, endogenous change and exogenous change. In eulogizing the dead, we knit them firmly into our society. This dampens criticism of the deceased in two ways. First is the "you're either with us or you're against us" mentality. Lest they be grouped with the causes of the tragedy, forces that come in to destroy a part of the system, even critics must -- to satisfy their own minds as well as public opinion -- make a point of identifying with the deceased, making their criticism nothing to show how small it is compared to the animosity of the tragedy. Republicans eulogized Paul Wellstone to show that, while they may have criticized his policies, they certainly didn't wish him dead. Second (and perhaps more importantly) it stakes a claim to the thing that was destroyed. It's a sort of social Monroe Doctrine, asserting that the deceased was part of our cultural system, and so only we have the right to determine their fate. The space program is uncontestably ours, so we will make the decisions on what to do about it, not some exogenous force.

The issues of setting social boundaries are amplified in the case of a tragedy because of the profundity of the deaths that accompany it. Whatever logic a person might offer when considering the possibility abstractly or at a distance, very few people have truly come to terms -- on a deep emotional level -- with the issue of death. We can get along fine because most of the time death doesn't intrude forcibly on our lives. Deaths happen to people at some social or physical or temporal distance from ourselves, allowing us to take a detached view of them and push the problem aside. But sometimes death becomes an existential issue. (And I suspect my own lack of emotion about death is more a result of my high threshold for existential experience than my reconciliation with death.) At that moment, the hollowness of our philosophical grappling with death elicits a kind of fear that our whole philosophical-cultural project is a sham. Thus we turn to solidarity with others to reaffirm our worldview, to contain the corroding implications of our lack of reconciliation with death.


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