Thursday, September 17, 2009

Two Ramons and a Samurai

The Jewish year 5769 closed with the bizarre and the tragic.

On Tuesday September 15 a Johns Hopkins University student killed an intruder in his off-campus Baltimore home. As a recent Hopkins graduate all too aware of the Baltimore crime scene, the incident quickly grabbed my attention. The otherwise pedestrian death of a repeat offender soon grabbed everyone's attention, however, because the student killed the intruder with a five foot long samurai sword.

Bizarre. Bizarre enough, in fact, to inspire reams of silly one-liners and even a sarcastic website.

And yet tragic. A man's life cut short, the horror and pain a stark reality no matter how many petty robberies he had on his rap sheet. And a student's life forever altered. With his own hands, in his own home, he cut a man to pieces. Not the easiest memory to forget from his college years.

Two days earlier, Sunday September 13, Israelis began their week with the news that a young air-force pilot had died when his F16 crashed during a routine training exercise. The tragic death of a 19 year old was deepened by the unfairly bizarre identity of the fallen cadet: Assaf Ramon.

Six years earlier, Assaf's father, Ilan Ramon, Israel's first and only astronaut, died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Shortly after the tragedy, Assaf indicated that he intended to follow in his father's footsteps. Assaf made good on his pledge, winning acceptance to Israel's elite fighter-pilots course and, like his father, graduating as the valedictorian last fall. When he was recognized as the outstanding cadet, his commanders spoke about his courage and humility, two traits characteristic of his father. And now, like his father, Assaf's mission was cut short. Downed in flight.

Rarely is a soldier's death in training cause for national mourning. Yet Israelis of all stripes mourned the double tragedy of the Ramon family. Many questioned the merit of permitting sons to serve in dangerous units if their family has already suffered the death of a father or elder brother in uniform. Yet Assaf's youth and Ilan's heroism only partly explain the national trauma. With growing fear over Iran's nuclear capabilities, a death in the Ramon family reminds Israelis of Ilan's participation in Israel's daring destruction of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Politics aside, Israelis mourned with the Ramons because in a society that so often feels like a bickering family, a country where nearly everyone has a son or daughter in the army, no family ever mourns alone.

David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, rightly called attention to the same sentiment when he wrote:

Nobody beyond these borders, however familiar with Israel, can have quite understood the extent of the grief here at the loss of the stellar son of our meteoric astronaut....Assaf Ramon was the scion of a national hero, Ilan Ramon, who was an exemplar of courage and skill, morality and humility--our highest aspirations. Assaf had begun to inherit that mantle. And now he has been downed and shattered

Two deaths this week, one in my old home the other in the new. Although there is little reason to associate the two tragedies, the year 5769 concluded with the two events entwined in my mind. Lives cut short. Forever.

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