Experts say predictable reactions include the bizarre, tasteless and opportunistic
San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 2, 2003
Ryan Kim, Chronicle Staff Writer
The debris from the Columbia space shuttle had barely crashed to Earth when the first conspiracy theories came to life.
It took a couple of hours for someone to post a piece of wreckage for sale on EBay. Meanwhile, experts in humor predicted that old Challenger shuttle jokes would soon be resuscitated after more than a decade in storage.
While much of the country mourned Saturday’s shuttle disaster, a small minority responded in bizarre, tasteless and opportunistic ways. Some used the occasion as a chance to circulate conspiracy ideas and grudges, or try to earn a buck.
“You can say it’s a built-in biological reaction,” said William Fry, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. “Sometimes people respond in tasteless ways, sometimes in artistic ways.”
The Bush administration on Saturday quickly dismissed the notion that the shuttle was brought down intentionally. But that didn’t stop people from positing their beliefs as to what really transpired.
Depending on who was writing in various Internet news groups, the shuttle was destroyed by the U.S. government — in an attempt to funnel money away from NASA and to the Iraq war campaign — or by the Israelis or Muslim extremists.
One person on Google noted that shuttle debris came down in the general area of Palestine, Texas, while another observed that this was the first time that an Israeli was on board the shuttle.
John Morreall, a professor of religion at College of William and Mary in Virginia, said some people turn to conspiracy theories in a genuine attempt to understand an inexplicable tragedy, to assemble order from chaos.
“For many Americans, we like simple reasons for everything,” said Morreall. “People don’t want to believe that our technology can fail, so if we can blame it on a foreign person or group, it feels better than saying our own technology failed.”
But massive disasters are also opportune times to reinforce long-held hatreds and grudges against various scapegoats, said Alan Dundes, an anthropology professor at UC Berkeley.
As an example, in some Internet news groups, some people were already suspecting that the lone Israeli astronaut was somehow implicated in the explosion.
One would-be huckster tried to capitalize on Saturday’s tragedy by trying to sell Columbia shuttle debris on EBay; it is unknown if it was real debris or not. The Internet auction site pulled the proposal a short time later.
Dundes said that after any large event, however disastrous, there emerges a market for souvenirs. And with that come unscrupulous entrepreneurs who will try to take advantage.
“People want to touch celebrity, and celebrity can be calamity or disaster as well,” Dundes said.
It may take longer for the tasteless humor to emerge following this, the second American shuttle tragedy. But experts on humor say it won’t be too long before people find a way to get a tasteless laugh from the incident.
Following the deadly explosion aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1986, numerous jokes were circulated, on subjects ranging from the last words of the crew to the whereabouts of their remains.
“It’s a genetic mechanism to try and control these emotions, which have destructive factors in them,” said Fry, who has written six books on humor. “We try to create humor out of tragedy in an attempt to relieve fear and/or depression.”
Morreall thinks there will be fewer jokes overall about the fate of the Columbia crew — in part because of looming concerns about a war with Iraq and the worsening economy — and because many cracks have already been used in the Challenger disaster.
But he said that as offensive as the jokes are, they will find their way into circulation because they remind people of how fortunate they are in comparison.
“If it’s someone else’s problem, we can get a certain thrill from it,” said Morreall. “Part of the delight is, it’s not us.”