Feb 3 2003

IT IS not difficult to imagine the rejoicing that the Columbia space shuttle tragedy will cause in certain squalid corners of the globe, including some morally bankrupt parts of Britain.

I have never known such poisonous anti-Americanism abroad in the world, which is saying something for someone who grew up during the Vietnam war.

I write these words surrounded by Sunday papers that trot out all the journalistic cliches about a planet united in grief. "People all over the world will have been stunned by the disaster..." "numb with grief..." "Our hearts go out to America..."

Do they really? Do our hearts really go out?

Last week I heard the United States compared, in all seriousness, to Hitler's Third Reich. And on the eve of a war that few people want, this hysterical trash is becoming the norm.

I would bet my last euro that the disintegration of the space shuttle lifted the hearts of all different kinds of scumbag.

The left-wing firebrands who think that bombing Baghdad would be the moral equivalent of shovelling Jewish mothers and babies into gas ovens.

The Labour Party pacifists you only ever hear about when they have another white flag to wave. And the screaming hordes across the globe whose idea of a good night out is burning the Stars and Stripes.

The news that the men and women on board included the first Israeli in space would have been the cherry on the cake. Isn't it strange how the people who shout loudest about the Nazis always seem to carry the virus of anti-Semitism in themselves?

A predication. Over the next seven days, all those America-hating, Bush-is-a-cowboy commentators will start crawling out of the woodwork to report how the space shuttle tragedy is a blow to America's "arrogance", "pride" and "egotism".

The fact is that the seven men and women who died were shining examples of how great the human race can be. They were brave, intelligent, with the quiet selflessness that's always the mark of true heroes.

They were of every colour, and from many corners of the globe. Kalpana Chawla emigrated to the US from India in the 80s, and photos of her smiling face remind me of people I have met in America who were originally from Russia, China and Eastern Europe.

"Where are you from?" I would ask them, in New York, St Louis or Washington. And they would all tell me the same thing: "I am from here."

Because America has an ability to assimilate people from around the world - to make them true Americans - that is unknown in Europe.

There is a generosity of spirit about the United States that is completely lacking anywhere else. Those seven astronauts could have been from anywhere.

What united them, and what unites the people of America, is an ability to dream.

America is the only country in the world that still has the vision, the guts and the confidence to reach for the stars.

Russia still has a few flying baked-bean cans but they will soon be rusting along with all those old Soviet nuclear warheads.

When deriding American culture, it is customary to trot out a few sneers about McDonald's - as if they don't queue around the block for the stuff from Moscow to Manchester.

But manned space flight is even more American. And it is a primal human instinct, this need and yearning to strike out for the unknown.

It is the instinct that took us out of the caves, that took us to sea, bound for lands that did not appear on any map, and in the end took men to the moon.

Those astronauts who died were explorers, pioneers and the last of the frontiersmen. When we lose that will to strike out for the unknown, we will start dying as a species.

If we could only see it, we will realise that the disintegration of the space shuttle was truly a tragedy for the entire world.

The seven men and women who died on the shuttle were a credit to their race.

The human race.