Hard News by Russell Brown

Surly Bonds

In the same few days as seven astronauts died when the Columbia space shuttle broke up on re-entry, nine people died in a train accident in Sydney, 40 people died in a train crash in Zimbabwe, 15 people died in a terrorist bus bombing in Afghanistan and 46 people died in what appeared to be a terrorist bomb attack in Nigeria.

So why did the shuttle accident fill five full pages in the New Zealand Herald on Monday, while the others (with the brief exception of the Sydney crash) got world-page headlines at best? It's not because any of these sad events was, in human terms, any more or less tragic than the others. Comparison of tragedies is fruitless.

But there were reasons that the shuttle accident got a much higher profile in the news than the others: it happened on TV and over America; hence, there were compelling pictures, breaking reports, extensive back-stories on the international crew, background and analysis. It was a no-brainer for the editors of Sunday's TV news and Monday morning's papers.

A spacecraft falling from the sky is also news because it is unusual - more so than bombings and catastrophic infrastructure failures. And yet, the seven who died will have known and accepted the risks they undertook. The fact that they were still prepared to seek to extend the boundaries of human knowledge and experience is what ought to impress us. Space flight is richly aspirational; evocative of destiny and purpose. It symbolises the America everyone wants to love: boundless, ambitious, without precedent.

If the coming investigation is as important as that which followed the fall of the Challenger shuttle 17 years ago, it will be crucial. The Challenger catastrophe, it transpired, could have been prevented had a single engineer, Robert Lund, held fast to his veto on the launch. Instead, he was asked by his own management to "think like a manager," and eventually changed his mind.

Among the reasons to "think like a manager" was the shuttle programme's own budget battle with the US Congress. NASA was under pressure to show results. If the Challenger launch went ahead, President Reagan would be able to announce that arrival of the first teacher in space. It was a powerful incentive.

Instead, Reagan delivered a very different speech. And, as it happened, delivered one of the great lines in any presidential address: "We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God." Well, actually the first half of the sentence, with its confused tenses, is pretty clunky. But the second part: " …slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God," is resonant still.

As this page explains, the line was adapted from 'High Flight', a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War who flew in a British spitfire squadron in World War II and was killed on a training flight in 1941, aged 19. It was suggested by Reagan's speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, but the President was, it seems, already familiar with the poem.

Bush's brief speech to the nation was, inevitably, not quite so resonant, but concluded thus:

In the skies today we saw destruction and tragedy. Yet farther than we can see there is comfort and hope. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing."

The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.

May God bless the grieving families, and may God continue to bless America.

The quoted verse seems to suit the moment well enough. But the Biblical context is quite startling. Isaiah is the Old Testament prophet most loved by millennial Christians, who hold that his 66 chapters of prophecy are mostly allegories for the events of the end times, in which, of course, we are living.

Chapter 40, from which the verse is taken, is the beginning of a series of promises and predictions about redemption. Isaiah is speaking messianically, comforting the Jews with the promise that their God will come and free them from the captivity of Babylon (modern-day Iraq, more or less), and emphasising the power of the God of Israel. He goes on to predict, basically, the end of the world in the face of God's wrath, but not before a ruinous global war beginning in the Middle East. God will create "a new heavens and a new earth" for those who remain.

The weird but remarkably influential dispensational premillennialist Christian movement holds that after the seven years' tribulation, Israel will defeat its enemies in the battle of Armageddon (although two thirds of the Jews will die), and Christ will return to rule from Jerusalem for 1000 years. There will be harmony in the animal kingdom, and people will still die but they'll live longer. Good Christians will have already ascended - performing the neat trick of going to heaven without the bother of dying.

Many of these people believe a catastrophic war in Iraq is pretty much a good thing, because then Jesus will come back. This crackpot has his own radio show to help people get ready for a nuclear holocaust, although he warns that "only good English speaking Christian 'White' people should gather to Zion. Blacks should go back to Africa."

Others, clearly not quite ready for the world to end have harnessed Isaiah to rail against US policy in the Middle East (this goes along with the belief that the real Babylon is the West) or even incorporated him into tragic political verse.

A page of pre-millenniallist commentary on the "prophet of prophets" Isaiah is here. A crisp orthodox theological critique of the end-times reading of the Old Testament prophecies can be found here.

The dispensationalists - who are fanatically pro-Israel - can count the senior House Republican, Tom DeLay, and at least one other Republican Congressman in their ranks. They have a strong presence at the activist level of the Republican Party. And stories like this and this have sought, not entirely successfully, to link President Bush to the dispensationalist movement. And there's a whole page full of links to stories about the movement.

Perhaps it was just a nice, comforting verse, chosen in innocence. But Isaiah was widely invoked after the September 11 attacks, which were considered by believers to be the beginning of the tribulations. To quote him in the wake of another great calamity, while a war in old Babylon looms, seems to be to risk misunderstanding.

Bush has brought daily Bible study meetings to the White House; it's hard to believe he wouldn't know the significance of the part of the Bible he chose to air. But even if the choice was innocent or subconscious, the story of the end of the world is a strange place for a presidential mind to go for solace.