Wednesday, February 19, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Those we mourn and those we ignore

Special to The Times

Two-and-a-half weeks after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, we're still mourning the deaths of the seven astronauts. The accident was tragic, of course. It always is when good men and women needlessly die. But it also made me wonder why we single out certain lives to value more than others.

Just two days before the Columbia crashed, an explosion at the West Pharmaceutical Services plant in Kinston, N.C., killed four workers and injured 37, some still in critical condition. The plant had been repeatedly cited for serious safety violations, which means the explosion might have been preventable. But we've seen no national mourning, no calls for major inquiries on factory safety, no lengthy stories giving a human face to the people who died.

The Kinston factory workers aren't the only Americans who risk life and limb at work. In a typical year, 6,000 workers die from fatal occupational injuries, and 50,000 from occupational illnesses such as asbestosis, brown lung and workplace-linked cancers. Six million get injured.

We don't talk about these people much. Their lives are invisible, far from the media pundits. They're often the immigrants and the poor, those most disposable in our culture.

Lobbied by the meat-packing companies, Colorado Republicans even passed a recent state law limiting workplace compensation for losing an arm to $36,000, and $2,000 for "serious permanent disfigurement."

So why do the lives of the astronauts matter more than workers like those who died in the fire? Astronauts are glamorous. We dream as children of rocketing into the skies. We think of astronauts as some different breed of human, rare heroes who mix scientific passion, physical courage, and a willingness to launch themselves into the unknown. The Columbia explosion inevitably evoked memories of the Challenger.

But why don't we pay more attention to those other tragedies, ones lucky to make 30 seconds of network news? Imagine if we took each of the daily workplace deaths and injuries to heart, the way we have with the deaths of the Columbia astronauts.

To be sure, the image of an exploding space shuttle is intrinsically dramatic — more so than workplace injury statistics. But most of us rarely even glimpse what it means to go in each day jeopardizing life and health to put food on the table, just as we see little of what it's like to struggle to get by without adequate health care, housing or education. These stories get erased from our national consciousness before even surfacing, like the vanished history in George Orwell's "1984." We never feel the weight of the shattered lives.

Distancing by invisibility happens even more with global life-and-death issues. Thirty thousand people die every day of hunger-related causes worldwide — the equivalent of 10 Sept. 11 attacks. According to United Nations studies, a yearly appropriation of $13 billion would meet their basic health and nutrition needs and save their lives. That's about what America spends on pet food, or one-thirtieth of President Bush's $400 billion defense budget. We could also cover this amount seven times with the yearly cost of Bush's 2001 tax cuts for the wealthiest one in 100 Americans, or with a fraction of the $30 billion a year his latest proposal suggests giving to the same elite group.

But of course we don't do this. Instead, we pull back from every international aid program conceivable, and when we do participate, ensure that the global poor pay so much for what they receive that many can never even participate. We do this, with barely a shred of debate, so we can transfer still more wealth to those who have vast amounts to begin with. And we deem that privilege more important than the right of children to eat.

You'd think that so many preventable deaths would shock us. They would if we felt their full human impact. But we get little chance to do so. The astronauts feel real to us, because we hear their stories and get a sense of them as human beings with lives as worthy and complex as our own. They're not just statistics.

We don't see the faces of those who starve halfway around the world, any more than we do those of the ordinary Iraqis who will die if Bush has his war. They remain invisible and anonymous. Our media and our political leaders choose not to make their lives a priority. Nor do most of us even glimpse the daily risks taken by those who work dangerous and life-destroying jobs here at home, Earthbound, without the aura of the heavens. We prefer not to look too closely at their lives.

It's fine to mourn the astronauts. But their story should also make us ask why we seem to value some lives more than others. And what it means to make so many people routinely expendable in the name of progress, national security or maintaining our lifestyles.

Could we treat the tragedies of all who die needlessly as seriously as we do the loss of the Columbia's crew? These may be hard questions to answer, but they're ones we need to be asking.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time" and chairs the Peace and Justice Alliance. He'll speak at 7 p.m., March 1, at St. Mark's Cathedral on Capitol Hill.


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