In all the horrid aftermath of the death of 269 human beings, I am most struck by the way their murder has brought life to America's most hawkish Soviet-watching. The Russian image of last summer, the pen pals of Samantha Smith, are gone, replaced by the Russians of the fall, the builders of the Berlin Wall, the invaders of Afghanistan. The Soviets who were anti-war because they knew war and had suffered enough have been replaced by the hunkered-down old men who are "uncivilized" and "barbaric."
The emotional and political seesaw of our relations with Russia is not new. But if I were the relative of a passenger shot out of the air and out of life over the sea, I would be immeasurably pained.
A tragedy born of miscommunications, paranoia, and hair-trigger hostilities in a dangerous world is being used to increase the danger. If it were my mother, brother, child, friend, I also would be saddened to see these deaths escalate the possibilities of universal catastrophe. I would be particularly appalled to see the remains of the peace movement wash up on the political shores like grisly debris on the beaches of Japan.
There is a grim and thoughtless undercurrent of satisfaction in our government pronouncements. The Russians have given us a perfect excuse to label them with the dehumanizing words we use for mortal enemies. I was never a convert to belief in the Russian dove. But I cannot understand why we are supposed to be pleased somehow because the Russians have lost ground in the propaganda war.
We are supposed to be pleased because they are seen as more bellicose, pleased because they have lost the public relations lead. It is as if we win some advantage when their behavior is seen as irrational.
I share the angry reaction to the fact that a Russian warplane blew apart a civilian flight. It doesn't take a rich imagination to fantasize those ghastly minutes in the lives of passengers fastened to their seats as their jumbo jet spiraled into the sea. The Russians' ability to manage the news in their own country has been a particularly graphic reminder of the differences between our societies.
But our own hawkish response may be as useless as it is predictable. In a USA Today survey, 30 percent of the people said that the incident made them more supportive of defense spending. In a Newsweek poll, 52 percent of us think that the president's response was not tough enough. The president expects to use this incident to quiet the opposition to the MX missile, and even Tip O'Neill agrees that the missile may now be deployed.
On the street, quotes like these were routine: "We should increase military spending." "More weapons would make them think twice." The motives, the desire to do something, are all understandable, but there is no rational relationship between this horrifying incident and a call to greater arms.
If all the nuclear warheads and delivery systems in our arsenal couldn't prevent the massacre over Asia, how would an MX missile help? Our capacity to take devastating actions is already swifter than our capacity to make intelligent decisions. Whatever happened over the Russian sea, and we may never fully know, the pilot and ground crew had over two hours to track that plane and to decide. For our own part, it took us over 10 days to get a proper translation of a Russian-language tape.
Will the world be more secure with Pershing missiles in Europe, when the Russians have six to nine minutes to decide the fate of millions? Do hair- triggers make us stronger? Does a sitting-duck missile like the MX, one that invites a first strike, make us less vulnerable?
In the current "shrinking" of the Soviet psyche, we are told that they are a paranoid people who traditionally feel isolated and threatened by the world. This was a tragedy fueled by their paranoia, it is said, and by the fearful reality of random spy planes and close encounters in our edgy world. Today, already armed to the hilt, there is very little we can do between sanctions and nuking. We surely can't cure paranoia by making the victim more afraid.
In every conceivable way, this massacre was the result of a failure of communication: technical communication, human communication, understanding. I don't say this to exonerate the Russians, quite the contrary. But in the real world, we are tied together and we have no choice but to keep in contact.
When the Russians lose a battle in the propaganda war for peace, when they react in scared and frightening ways, it's foolish to think that we are the winners. We also lose something very rare in this life: another notch of security.