"We understand that this probably is the most difficult ever in this woman's life, and we clearly will respond at the appropriate time and in the appropriate fashion." -- Vice President Dick Cheney
"The purpose of the letter is to respond in an humanitarian way, in an American way, to a widow who is grieving." -- Secretary of State Colin Powell
These comments on April 7 supposedly were intended to explain why President George W. Bush felt constrained to write a personal letter of condolence to Ruan Guoqin, who became an instant widow six days earlier when a Chinese fighter plane piloted by her husband, Wang Wei, collided with a much larger US spy plane, apparently in international air space over the South China Sea. The US plane subsequently made a safe emergency landing on a Chinese is a land and the Bush administration quickly began negotiating with Beijing officials with the aim of securing the release of its 24 crew members.
The Bush letter was deemed necessary, as a Knight Ridder news report put it, because "Chinese hardliners" were using the comments of a grieving woman "to personalize the confrontation and rally Chinese sentiment against the United States."
Toward that end, China's state-run news agency conducted lengthy TV interviews with Ruan Guoqin and quoted extensively from a letter she wrote to Bush: "What is incredible is your and your apathetic attitude toward my husband's life. Can this be the human rights and humanism that you have been talking about every day?"
Let us not dwell here on that statement's basic error: Poor Ruan Guoqin may have been aware that US presidents long have upheld the proud tradition of paying lip-service to the cause of human rights, and how was she to know that this one from the outset had other things on his mind?
So, Washington's movers and shakers seemingly were convinced that Chinese officials, by acting to "personalize the confrontation," somehow had lent beyond the bounds of both good taste and traditional fairness in such circumstances. But, while it would be a mistake to assign to them any genuine humanitarian feelings, the fact remains that they were quite right -- just about every loss of human life, as widows tend to realize more than presidents, is deeply personal to those left behind. And wouldn't it be pleasant to believe in the possibility that George W. Bush, beyond the rote profession of regret that no doubt formed the text of his letter to Ruan Guoqin (and even if only in late-night private reflections), were capable of realizing that fact?
The sanctimonious comments of Cheney and Powell notwithstanding, Bush wrote his letter only because the Chinese in this case had an enormous bargaining chip in the form of 24 captive Americans and their state-of-the-art aircraft. That, when human lives are lost in more normal military endeavors, is not usually the case.
About a month before this mid-air collision, Saddam Hussein -- to whom George W. Bush's presidential father once ascribed qualities of evil on a par with Adolf Hitler's -- managed yet again to offend the sensibilities of the White House's occupant of the moment. Bush's reaction was predictable: He ordered an air strike against Iraq, explaining later that such action was no big deal, merely "business as usual."
It was a tame affair as such things go, civilian casualties in single digits, except that one of the dead was a four-year-old girl, whose parents may be forgiven for sharing Ruan Guoqin's belief that such tragedy indeed is personal.
The child's death, much more than Wang Wei's, was the direct result of a US president's action. But Iraq had no hostages, the dead girl as far as Americans were concerned had no name, no platitudes poured forth from the lips of Cheney or Powell, and Bush wrote no letter of commiseration to the survivors.
Left unanswered -- and more importantly, unasked -- was the question of what this nameless child had to do with Saddam Hussein, who surely was as unmoved by her death as the American president who so cavalierly felt the need to demonstrate what a tough guy he is by giving the order -- hat caused it to happen.
Given the political exigencies on both sides of the US Chinese dispute, there never was any doubt that the 24 American crew members ultimately would be released, and the same is true of their $80 million flying monstrosity which also will be back home as soon as the world's finest technocrats figure out how best to spend $85 million to get it there.
But happy endings are the stuff of TV sitcoms, not reality, and while the safety of 24 Americans may be deemed by some a fair trade for the life of one Chinese pilot, there is nothing happy about the needless death -- whether in Baghdad or Hoboken -- of a four-year-old girl.
Yes, reconnaissance missions in international air space are quite legal, and yes, the victims of military responses to perceived provocations routinely include innocent civilians. The best we can hope for in the wake of such deaths probably is a president who, whether or not a contrite letter is written, may feel at least a tinge of real regret. We don't have one.
Joe Lersky is retired newspaper editor living in Grove City, Ohio.