The death of News of the World, the last flight of the space shuttle, and the debt crisis: these items dominated the Sunday morning talk shows today. In recent weeks I have found myself returning to these “weekly roundups.” I can barely tolerate the 24/7 coverage of CNN or MSNBC and will not even consider Fox News, although I have tried. But the “roundup” shows seem to capture the important points and this week’s topics, while seemingly disparate, do seem to have a similar thread to me: they have all been hoisted on their own petard.
The petard doesn’t figure in with too much of our history these days but at one time it was as vital to soldiers as the tank or the canon is today. The petard was a small bomb that was used to blast open doors or make holes in castle walls. From what can probably be assumed as a humble beginning, the petard evolved to a major weapon of war, used to blast an army’s way into castles and other fortifications. According to Wikipedia, “a common tactic was to dig a shallow trench close to the enemy gate, and then erect a small hoisting engine that would lift the lit petard out of the trench, swing it up, out, and over to the gate, where it would detonate and hopefully breach the gate. This procedure might go awry; the engineer lighting the bomb could be snagged in the ropes, lifted out with the petard, and consequently blown up.” Hence he was hoisted on his own petard.
The phrase became well known complements of William Shakespeare’s tragic hero, Hamlet, who hoisted his schoolmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the petard of Hamlet’s wicked uncle, King Claudius. The plot was to have R&G assist with the destruction of Hamlet but the clever Dane turned the table and it was R&G who died.
Without question the News of the World wins the Hoist award for the week. The British scandal sheet has printed its last edition and, seemingly, hacked its last phone. The British public seemed quite content when the only phones hacked were those of the Monarchy — British or Hollywood style. But when the “reporters” turned their hacking on a missing 13-year old girl who was eventually found murdered the public turned on a dime. Worse yet, it was revealed in this same week that the eavesdropping and email snooping extended to the fallen heros of Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps as many as 4,000 families of soldiers. The British, quite rightly, do not take to the ghoulish invasion of privacy that this story suggests. After all, what was the point? To listen to heartsick family members mourn the loss of their brave soldiers? To perhaps hear anger at British policy that has supported a decade-long war? It is incomprehensible and no amount of recompense can resolve this gross violation of privacy but attempts will be made. As early as April the paper’s parent company, Rupert Murdock’s tainted News International, established a ₤15 million compensation fund for hacking victims. The writing was on the wall even then. Today the estimate is closer to ₤120 million and the damage has only begun to surface.
Mr. Murdoch, being no fool, has tucked his tail and turned the other way. While the “reporters” and hackers at NoW have already been hoisted it remains to be seen if the General will get his comeuppance. One can only hope.
Meanwhile, the space shuttle Atlantis is orbiting around the world for the last time and upon its (hopefully) safe return the shuttle program is no more. As one who has thrilled to the accomplishments of the space program from its very beginning I cannot help but feel we are loosing far more than a “space truck”. I can remember Alan Shepherd’s 15 minute blast into space. My high school day stopped dead and, what few TVs we had, were tuned to the grainy, black-and-white event. Students crowded cheek-to-jowl to see the blastoff and anxiously await the recovery. In December 1968, while in college, I witnessed the blast-off of Apollo 8 on a cold beach in Florida. I felt the thunder of the Saturn 5 rocket shake the very core of my being and watched the ascent of three brave men who were going to the moon, albeit just to circle that orb a few times and then head home. But wonderfully those orbits came on Christmas Eve and the words of Genesis read by Frank Borman were universal enough to appeal to people of all faiths, to all the people of this world. It was an earth uniting moment that gives me chills even today as I write. It was a colossal moment of hope.
Space shuttle arrived with perhaps less sex appeal. No moon trips for this baby. But it would do great things. We were sure of that. And it has. The international space station is no small feat and repair of the Hubble satellite alone was worth the investment. Those of us who grew up in the glamor days of space travel knew that nuts and bolts work was a part of it. Pay the price because space is important. Think of it every time you velcro up your jacket or shoes, or look at the computers that you carry everywhere or type in an address on your GPS. It was the space program that brought these marvels to you.
And now the American space program is … what? Where? How, in these times particularly when there seems so little hope, how can we close the shuttle program with no viable future for American involvement in space other than “private enterprise” and some vague pronouncement from the Obama Administration about space programs that have no time table. The man who had the audacity to hope has not applied that hope to space.
But NASA shares a huge part of the blame in this. Their policy from the beginning of the space shuttle program was to make space flight “routine.” We no longer had “space ships” or “spacecraft”. It was NASA itself that first used the term “space truck”. At one time, in their hubris, NASA predicted a flight every month from the space shuttles. The astronauts were no longer the glamorous people of the Mercury 7 or the Gemini 13. They were “payload specialists” and NASA downplayed their personalities, choosing instead to float special candidates to the top, like Sally Ride (America’s first woman in space) and teacher Christa McAuliffe. In part this was to protect the astronauts but the net result was no heros. Only those who died became heros and the colossal waste of these failed missions — both in lives and financial investment — did little to help NASA in its public relations efforts to keep Americans excited about the positive accomplishments of space travel. NASA has been hoisted too.
Which brings us to the debt ceiling crisis that is playing out in agonizing (and numbing) detail on our TVs each day. Chicken Little with his cries of a falling sky looks like a rank amateur compared to the players in this drama. The sad part is that the sky really is about to fall and we (with apologies for metaphor mixing) are like lambs to the slaughter. The public is so ideologically bludgeoned that it can no longer determine what is real and what isn’t. The media, playing the role of Chicken Little with remarkable likeness, clamors daily about the dangers but it fails to give the public the reliable data it needs to make a decision and raise an upcry. Fareed Zakaria the columinist and commentator, has done the best job of explaining the failure that I have heard. Speaking on NPR, he succinctly noted that the budget is about numbers, not ideology. So much money coming in, so much money going out. It is simple math to make things work but both political parties have made even the process of math ideological. Democrats won’t accept cuts, Republicans won’t increase revenue. The result? A very real and dangerous situation in which the United States of America may, for the first time in 235 years, default on its loans. The political parties are already hoisted on their own petards but the great fear is that they are about to take us there with them.❧