Debris in the parking lot

People die around us every day. Their deaths plunge those nearest them into dark, ancient rituals while the rest of us get on with our lives between the office and the television set. Death, though present every second, is distant from our daily existence. We know that each of us has only one life but live as if we need not think about this now. Few can say they’ve had their fill before they go, that they leave no loose ends. (Is life worth living if not in an endless mess of things still needing to be done?) We walk in a trance over an abyss, knowing that none will reach the other side, that everything in the delicate archives of our lives will be thrown to the winds and into the gutter. So why do the deaths of seven strangers on the space shuttle Columbia disturb us? Why do we remember the Challenger? Why will we never forget those trapped in the World Trade Center when we know that thousands were dying at the same time in Africa and that violent death in the Middle East is a daily occurrence? Perhaps because death in our culture has become so distant. The closest we come to it collectively is through the television screen. If we see it, we feel it. A new language is being created from images such as those of the Challenger bursting into a fiery, snowy, mind-numbing scorpion in the sky; eight-year old Mohammed cowering in his father’s arms in a crossfire before being killed by Israeli troops; the photographs of the sailors of the Kursk and the letters they wrote as death approached them in the frozen submarine; the second plane slicing into the second tower of the World Trade Center as if either the plane or the tower was an illusion, exploding into a fireball still dwarfed by the giant it would bring down; and now, the Columbia streaking across the clear blue sky at 20,000 kilometers per hour (faster than a bullet, a commentator said) and being torn apart, its one proud tail of vapor becoming two, then three, then five, then many wakes for seven astronauts. By the time the engineers on the ground began to fear what was happening, these five men and two women had been torn apart by incomprehensible forces, raining down to earth, each alone, in a hail of wind, flesh and fire – the most basic elements. When his technological wizardry fails, man falls, in every sphere. No medicine can make life eternal. No ship is unsinkable, no spacecraft safe. And so we grieve, not only for the seven we did not know, not for the price that must be paid if, after learning to walk upright, man cannot master flight. We grieve because we witnessed sudden, gory death, the merciless end of fellow living beings. We know that our collective journey – into space, into knowledge, even between two towns – will not end. But we cannot escape the fact that each flies alone toward an end we do not know.