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The world mourns but questions, too

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 3, 2003

The explosion of the space shuttle Columbia was big news everywhere, but coverage in many foreign media reflected the world's ambivalent feelings toward its only superpower.

Some commentators mourned the loss of seven astronauts, but wondered if American "arrogance" contributed to the catastrophe. Others pondered how it would affect the American psyche, as the nation is still recovering from the Sept. 11 attacks and faces an impending war with Iraq. And more than a few found it ironic that an Israeli colonel was among the dead.

"It seems their fate, their dreadful fate, for Americans and Jews to die so spectacularly," wrote Rosie DiManno, a columnist for the Toronto Star.

"Those who believe in a fearful and avenging God . . . will undoubtedly take this -- an isolated but symbolic hurt -- as evidence of a righteous crusade against Americans and American hubris. With an Israeli hero -- a soldier, no less -- thrown in for good measure. It's no such thing of course. But there's no reckoning with the ignorant."

Canadian newspapers and television stations devoted massive, largely sympathetic coverage to the tragedy, which derailed plans for two Canadians to go into space this year. (Eight have flown shuttle missions, two of them on Columbia.)

But Canadians' unease about their powerful neighbor and the impending war with Iraq crept into some of the coverage. One Canadian television interviewer asked an expert whether Columbia's failure was because of the same arrogance the United States is purportedly showing in the Middle East. (The answer: No.)

In the Arab world, many newspapers played up the fact that one of the astronauts, Col. Ilan Ramon, was an Israeli.

The Arab News, an English-language daily in Saudi Arabia, headlined its report: "Israeli, US astronauts die in shuttle blast over Palestine." The story said it was a "tragic irony" that an Israeli had been killed near a Texas city with the same name as the Mideast's perennial battleground.

The story extensively quoted a critic of the Bush administration, who implied that Columbia might have carried nuclear materials.

"I must admit that when NASA said no one should go near a site because of the toxic potential of the fuel and 'other reasons,' I couldn't help but wonder what those reasons are," said Bruce Gagnon of the Global Network against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space.

In Israel, which had rejoiced in one of its own going into space, the media reflected the national depression.

"Even for a country buffeted by death and violence over the past two years, Ramon's death came as an enormous blow," said an editorial in the Jerusalem Post.

"At one time or another, every child looks skyward and imagines what it would be like to venture among the stars. Ramon embodied the fulfillment of those dreams for each and every one of us. . . ."

Like others around the world, Israeli commentators wondered what effect the tragedy would have on the war with Iraq. Amir Oren, writing in the Israei daily Ha'aretz, speculated the disaster could shatter Americans' confidence in their technology "and is likely to harden President George W. Bush's resolve to take action -- and soon -- against Saddam Hussein."

How Americans themselves will react prompted a mix of opinions. DiManno of the Toronto Star sees them as "a traumatized people . . . feeling quite alone, barely 16 months removed from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."

But Mark Steyn, a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph, thinks Sept. 11 has somewhat inured Americans to tragedy. "Since the terrorist attacks, Americans are tougher about these things: This is a country at war and one that understands how to absorb loss and setbacks."

Rather than hubris, though, Steyn views the disaster as evidence the United States has lost its sense of purpose.

"What happened happened most likely because the Columbia was just so damn old and rusty. If anything, it symbolizes not American arrogance but what happens when the great, youthful innovative spirit of the country is allowed to atrophy: the entire space program is now dependent on a transit system a generation old.

"If Mr. Bush really wanted to emphasize the gulf between his country and both the Islamist cave dwellers and 'Old Europe,' he would announce a major renewal of the space project. A frontier is part of the U.S. character."

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