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Coming Back to Earth

EARLY SATURDAY MORNING, CNN FEATURED A face-off between grumpy Janeane Garofalo and cocky Ben Ferguson, a syndicated talk-show host from Memphis. The topic was Hollywood anti-war activism, and while Garofalo fended off the inevitable questions about "Hanoi Jane" (oddly, her haircut actually did make her look a bit like Fonda), Ferguson waxed so gung ho about taking over Iraq that I thought he was about to suggest we invade France too. When told that this farcical segment was ending after a very few minutes, the comedienne — who'd gotten up in the wee hours to appear — incredulously snapped: "That's it?"

Which gets my vote as CNN's new slogan.

At almost exactly the same time, the space shuttle Columbia was breaking up in our southern skies, and everyone was rushing to cover it. By Saturday noon, the N.Y. Times' Todd Purdum had already written an article headlined "Disaster Stirs Already Unsettled Feelings Across the Country" (talk about having your finger on the pulse of America!), and by 6 p.m., Slate's brainy William Saletan had posted a piece comparing Bush's use of God in his remarks on the Columbia to Reagan's speech after the explosion of the Challenger. While CNN was saddled with gormless Miles O'Brien doing an "I'm just winging it" shtick, NBC anchor-in-waiting Brian Williams showed off his usual nonstick smugness (was Brokaw off signing another damn book?). CBS brought on Dan Rather, who clearly lives for such moments when he can play the national paterfamilias. Dan did what you expect of an old-fashioned anchorman at times of ill fortune — he quoted poetry, got folksy about Texas and tried to reassure a public that was largely in no great need of reassurance.

Perhaps recalling their success with earlier tragedies, the networks labored to turn the Columbia saga into a vast outpouring that would engulf the nation — CBS helpfully served up the tag line "United by Grief." But by late Saturday this story didn't hold the audience like the sniper, the Super Bowl or even Samantha Runnion. Few of us had any great investment in the space shuttle (like many others, I didn't even know it was up there), and anyway, ordinary people, just like the astronauts themselves, know that sudden death is part of the gig. Now that the shuttle is old hat, most of us are more attuned to the astronaut's stoic fatalism than The Today Show's pearl-bedecked Katie Couric, an emotional ambulance chaser who showed up at the Johnson Space Center on Monday to wallow in the loss to "the families" and "the community."

The Columbia explosion was an accident. But because such contingency threatens our sense of order and safety, many people sought relief in deeper explanations — budget cutting at NASA, Challenger-style carelessness, the fatal worthlessness of the space-shuttle program. While London's hook-handed Muslim cleric Abu Hamza chortled that the calamity was the work of God (who was just back from winning the Super Bowl for Tampa Bay), many Americans at first suspected terrorism because one of the crew was Israeli. (If Saddam or al Qaeda can shoot down shuttles going 12,000 mph 40 miles into space, we may as well pack it in.) In the left-wing newsletter Counterpunch, a psychology professor from Santa Clara wrote of "symbols begging for attention" in the loss of the Columbia, finding Jungian synchronicity in the fact that a shuttle named after Columbus, with an Israeli astronaut onboard, should rain debris on Palestine, Texas. Now there's a guy whose class you don't want to miss.

Ironically, the Columbia disaster will likely give the space program a much-needed boost, if only because it has put it back in the American consciousness. (Bush quickly proposed giving NASA an extra $470 million in funding, though he insisted that the increase was planned before the crash.) Still, it remains amazing how far space travel has fallen since the days when, as astronaut-turned-senator John Glenn noted on Meet the Press, America thrilled the world with its adventurous leadership. Back in the '60s and '70s, exploring outer space was a highly visible assertion of American optimism — the belief that this country could go anywhere and do anything. These days such a belief in the future seems as distantly quaint as ending poverty, creating a Peace Corps or sharing Captain Kirk's romantic belief that space is the final frontier.

***

WHEN I WAS IN HANOI A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, I WAS told that Philip Noyce had just finished shooting part of The Quiet American there. I was startled to hear it, for I wondered who the heck would want to see it. But now that we're heading into Gulf War II, the story feels far more relevant than it has at any point in the last quarter-century. Its title character, Alden Pyle, is a quintessentially American type, the likable do-gooder whose actions demonstrate just how much harm can be done by those convinced they're on the side of the angels.

President Bush has such certainty, though with his perpetually peevish expression, he's not exactly the kind of guy who'll ever get played by Brendan Fraser. Personally, I have no problem with him calling Saddam or Kim Jong Il "evil" — hell, they are — but what bothers me is his inability to define what's good. In last week's State of the Union address, he somberly covered familiar territory — Saddam is a mass murderer, he's violating U.N. resolutions, his weapons could eventually threaten the U.S. — yet his rationale for attacking Iraq remained so defensive and America-centric that it's no wonder that most of the world thinks him an attack dog. The speech offered no positive vision of the future that we, or those abroad, might be inspired by. Such an inability to articulate larger ideals is one reason why, in a recent N.Y. Times Magazine, the leftist writer Paul Berman dubbed Tony Blair, not Bush, "leader of the free world."

Although many anti-war types hate to think so, there are solid progressive reasons to liberate the people of Iraq (which is why the beleaguered Iraqi Communist Party encourages a multinational force to do just that). In fact, the most plausibly articulate proponents of "regime change" (including Kenneth Pollock, Christopher Hitchens, Fouad Ajami and the Defense Department's Paul Wolfowitz) want to do more than just topple Saddam. They know that the U.S. must help the Iraqis create a free, modern, democratic state. Among other things, this means rebuilding Iraq's ravaged infrastructure, making sure that the U.S. doesn't play the puppetmaster, guaranteeing that American oil companies gain no special edge from our military conquest, and promising that the U.S. will use its overwhelming power to create a just settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Such an agenda, the thinking goes, won't merely transform Iraq, it will help win the war of ideas against the Arab despotism and Islamic fundamentalism that are antithetical to our deepest values, including the self-confident optimism of the original space program.

Now, I'm realistic enough to know that such a plan is utopian, perhaps dangerously so — on Charlie Rose the other night, Norman Mailer brought up our old friend "hubris" — but I must confess that the Quiet American inside me finds something seductive in this master plan for Iraq. And I can't believe I'm the only one. (In fact, Hitchens is playing both roles in Noyce's movie.) There's a certain romantic grandeur to the conception, the possibility of remaking a wounded country (if not the whole world), which stirs something deep in our national soul.

But luckily, just when I find myself turning into a latter-day Alden Pyle, I'm brought back to earth by the nasty reality of President Bush, whose corporate-elite approach to his own nation — he's jazzed by dividend tax cuts for the rich, eager to roll back the Constitution — forewarns us just how deeply he'll be committed to freedom and justice in postwar Iraq. Although his administration does boast a fair number of genuine idealists, Cold War throwbacks like Wolfowitz who sincerely believe in America's civilizing mission, these aren't the guys in charge. Bush and Cheney are, and they're clearly something far less pleasant: hard-faced oilmen whose careers are all about hitting it big in the short run. While such ruthless focus may be helpful when you're actively waging war, it's worse than useless when you're creating the peace. Indeed, just as the State of the Union address didn't even allude to the price of military victory in Iraq — thousands of casualties, likely terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and an occupation that could cost the U.S. tens of billions over the next decade — it didn't bother to mention the word democracy, either.

Somewhere Graham Greene is smiling.


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