Offering a mourner’s kaddish for 2003

DISPATCHES By Hank Kalet: A look back at those we lost in 2003.

By: Hank Kalet
   New Year’s Day traditionally is a time for reflection on the previous year, on all the things we’ve done or not done, on the way the world around us has changed.
   We have witnessed war (in Iraq) and violent revolution (in Liberia), Iran has been devastated by an earthquake, our economy is mired in slump (despite what some of the statistics say). It’s been a year of surprises — the Yankees lost to the Marlins in six games in the World Series, the Nets made it to their second league championship and Tiger Woods did not win a major. Reality shows remain the royalty of television, the King of Pop faces sexual assault charges and a bouncy, double-disc dirty joke — Outkast’s "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" — is the king of the charts.
   But in many ways, we can define the year just ended by those we’ve lost. So here is a reflection on those lives. Call it a prayer for the dead, a mourner’s kaddish for 2003.
   Johnny Cash’s voice resonated from a deeper place, thundered with authority, with the hard stuff of a life lived. The Man in Black’s music reached beyond the confines of country and western without abandoning his country roots and remained committed, always, to "the poor and the beaten down / Livin’ in the hopeless hungry side of town."
   June Carter Cash was Johnny’s rock and an important voice in country music in her own right, a woman who combined a regal bearing with a down-home sincerity — and a voice that seemed filtered through charcoal, like fine whiskey.
   John Ritter made us laugh, with his flare for slapstick and perfect timing.
   Art Carney made us laugh, as well, his physical ticks and deadpan delivery making him the perfect foil to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden.
   But we cannot laugh when we consider the 28,679 Americans who have died from guns in 2003 (according to Handgun Free America). These were lives that were lost in vain.
   And we can only mourn the 477 American and 81 other coalition soldiers killed in Iraq since we launched this misguided war, and the untold number of Iraqi soldiers and civilians also killed.
   We mourn Sergio Vieira de Mello, United Nations envoy to Iraq who was killed along with dozens of his colleagues in a suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters during the summer. He was there despite opposition to the war to attempt to rebuild the nation.
   U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois was committed to rebuilding, as well, to reviving American democracy and aiding the less fortunate. He stood for what had made the national Democratic Party the people’s party for so many years, a politician committed to human values, to making the world better for all of us.
   We will miss Warren Zevon, the great American balladeer and rock and roller who handled the news of his terminal cancer with a dignity and energy that was remarkable, releasing one of the most satisfying and bittersweet albums of his career. "The Wind" takes on the Grim Reaper with humor, pathos and an unrelenting commitment to truth — which is something we could use a whole lot more of.
   And we lost the regal, dignified manner of actors Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck, stars of a different age whose mesmerizing presence on screen is the stuff of legend.
   David Brinkley, who helped create television news, will be missed, especially in this day when belligerent ideologues have taken over and substantive reporting has been cast to the wayside. Brinkley’s commitment to fairness and accuracy seem from another time.
   And we will miss George Plimpton’s intelligence and daring, his willingness to bring us new literary voices and to explore the world around us, giving us a chance to see, to make us think, make us wonder, brought to us so many great writers.
   And we mourn Edward Said, Palestinian intellectual and critic, who spent his life challenging the accepted wisdom regarding the Middle East, demanding an equal place at the bargaining table for the Palestinians while criticizing the violence of both sides and denouncing Yasir Arafat as a corrupt autocrat. His trenchant analysis of the Oslo Accords proved prophetic, the peace plan ultimately leading nowhere — as he said it would — and ending with a resumption of violence.
   And we mourn the nearly 600 Palestinians and approximately 200-plus Israelis killed in violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories this year — and the more than 3,600 who have died on both sides since the latest Intifada began in 2000.
   And we mourn the 65 men sent to death for the crimes they committed, but not because we mourn their deeds. Their deaths tarnish us as a society, make us complicit in an unnecessary act of revenge, reduce us to the level of the men whose lives we are ending.
   And we hope that the new year will be more peaceful, more life affirming, that the violence in Iraq and Liberia, in Israel and the Occupied Territories, in America’s inner cities and elsewhere can be abated, that we as a society will commit ourselves to peace and justice — and to the living.
Hank Kalet is managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at hkalet@pacpub.com.