Writes John Diaz, in the San Francisco Chronicle, (2/4/03):

Several readers have called or written to complain about the selection of letters we have printed about the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

Where, they asked, was the universal outpouring of grief for the seven brave astronauts and their families? Why were so many of the letters tinged with gratuitous bitterness toward President Bush or otherwise infused with cynicism or conspiracy theories?

Frankly, my colleagues and I were asking the same questions Saturday as we sorted through the several dozen e-mails and faxes that came in after the disastrous breakup of the shuttle on its final descent home….

Even more startling was the cynical, even hateful, tone of many of the letters. The outtakes were considerably harsher and more jaded than the selection we printed….

Perhaps it is idealistic to assume that a tragedy would prompt us to draw on our common humanity, rather than to trigger unprovoked animus based on racial, national or political differences. And these were not anonymous tirades. The above e-mails were sent for publication, with names, addresses and phone numbers.
This week I myself met a teenager who asked, “What’s so special about the Space Shuttle disaster? If seven people had died in Africa nobody would be concerned about them.”

I eventually realized the underlying egalitarian premise, telling her: “The difference is that we care more about some people than others.” We don’t rejoice in the death of seven Africans; but the Shuttle astronauts were engaged in an endeavor that is important to those of us who care about human achievement. It’s not true that we should care about everyone equally; the idea that we should is yet another ugly consequence of the corrupt ethics of altruism.

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