The other day I was listening to the news on the radio in my car to a story about the memorial service for those killed in the tragic explosion of the fertilizer plant down in Texas. Governor Rick Perry was one of the people who spoke at the memorial, and the news had a soundbite of him saying that the firefighters and emergency responders who died in the explosion "did not die in vain".
And my Inner Skeptic, which is a cynical cuss, immediately said, "Oh really...?"
To begin with, the phrase "They Shall Not Have Died in Vain" is one that bugs me. During the Iraq Occupation, it was invoked as an argument against withdrawl from that country because if we did, then the soldiers who had already fallen "Will Have Died In Vain." As if killing more of our soldiers is somehow the best way to honor those who have already died.
But usually, as in this case, the phrase is something of a stock platitude; something you are expected to say; something that we assume will make the survivors of the deceased feel better. Maybe some mourners do find this a comfort.
But what does it really mean in this case? Saying "They Didn't Die In Vain" suggests that they gave their lives trying to accomplish something, and that although they perished in the attempt, they succeeded.
The firemen at the Texas blaze were trying to put out the fire before it caused greater damage. They failed. This is not to blame them; I'm sure they did everything they humanly could. I daresay that many of them, maybe all of them, would have gone into the situation and done the same thing even if they new the full extent of the dangers they were facing. But their attempts to prevent a catastrophe were in vain.
We also use the phrase "They Didn't Die in Vain" in another way, perhaps a more important one. If a person dies trying to achieve something, and their example inspires others to emulate them, or to strive in other ways to attain their goal, then I think you might in justice say that the person "Didn't Die in Vain". And this is where Governeor Perry's statement bugs me.
The firemen in Waco died because the burning fertilizer plant they were trying to save was a bomb waiting to go off; the plant was unsafe, and in violation of state safety regulations; the firemen were unaware of the full extent of the danger and untrained in how best to face it; the people living immediately adjacent to the plant had no idea they had death in their back yard.
If Governor Perry really wants those people to have "Not Died in Vain" then he ought to be taking steps to prevent the situation which led to their deaths: strengthening and enforcing safety regulations to protect both his citizens and the heroes who put down their lives to protect those citizens.
This same week, however, Perry boasted that Texas has a good business environment precisely because of it's low level of intrusive regulations, the kind of regulations which might have prevented, or at least lessened, the devastating tragedy.
So if Perry were being truthful at that memorial about how he really felt, he should have shrugged and said "Eh... Accidents happen. Whatcha gonna do?"
But I suppose that's not a polite thing to say to grieving widows and families.