Death and letters

Such a stark word, death.

Death has been much in the news lately, with the deaths of the seven in the Columbia shuttle disaster. It is always sad when people who still have much to live for suddenly lose their lives. It is especially sad for those who knew and loved them, or for those whose own work depended on their contribution. Seven people.

Ninety people died yesterday in floods in São Paulo. The numbers dying daily in Chechnya are uncountable. Whole villages are being wiped out in Colombia. Today's paper reported another 16-year old Palestinian shot and killed by Israeli troops near the Gaza-Egypt border. He was armed, they said. Why would a 16-year old boy in Palestine pick up arms? We all know the answer.

Any death is sad, especially if it is before it's time. Now the government of the United States is openly planning a massive aerial attack on Iraq, knowing -- in fact intending -- that it will cause many deaths.

The deaths of the seven are sad. But doesn't it strike you as astonishing that those few, volunteers on a dangerous mission, would be given so much attention at just this moment?

Death and letters. They've been on my mind a lot lately. Last night we saw the exquisite film, The Hours, which is about (among other things) how death gives meaning to letters, and vice versa. Does a death mean at all, that is, does it have any meaning, unless and until we describe it? Until we tell its story, to ourselves and others? No, I think not. Without a story, the death is just a normal part of life, the extermination of some cells while the larger organism -- the society, the tribe, the human population -- lives on. The media are telling the story of the seven as though they were the most momentous events of, well, of this week, anyway. Until the next big story comes along. But stories don't just "come along." They are created, manufactured and in this case amplified by the biggest communications networks. That leaves it up to us to tell the other stories, of all those other deaths.