We were off from school, or at least Brian and I were. It was Regent’s Exams time and the high school was closed, except for the tests. I was doing what I often did, reading a book. Brian was watching tv, so I was sitting the wrong way on the couch – that is, not facing the television. I don’t know what he was watching, but all of a sudden he said, “The space shuttle just blew up.” Without turning around, I replied, “Shut up. That’s not even funny.” And he said, “I’m not joking. Turn around.”
I did, and I saw for the first time – but certainly not the last – the iconic image of a white cloud against the sky, with little trails coming off of it, the pieces of the Challenger as it abruptly made its way back to earth.
Today, of course, is the 25th anniversary of that disaster, a fact that ended up being quite overshadowed by the events unfolding in Egypt. Likely because I was there just over a year ago, I was as transfixed by the Egyptian uprising as I had been by the shuttle explosion back when I was 14.
I realized as I watched the coverage – online, via a live-stream from Al Jazeera’s English-language channel – how entirely the experience of breaking news had changed. When the Challenger exploded, we watched the news all day, the first time I can remember ever having done so. I think CNN existed at the time, but the idea of the 24-hour news cycle really didn’t, so wall-to-wall coverage was a rarity. I don’t recall the details of what was shown, beyond the fact that I saw that cloud about a thousand times, I suspect because the networks were scrambling for something to show.
Today, however, I watched real-time coverage of protests that moved seamlessly between Alexandria, Suez, and Cairo. I saw live footage of men praying in the streets amid the sounds of gunfire. I saw the headquarters of Egypt’s ruling party burn right before my eyes. I saw side-by-side comparisons of the state television feed (camera aimed at a calm area; nothing to see here) versus the Al Jazeera vantage point (protesters, fire, tanks). I caught news conferences with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Unlike the single cloud image that still defines a day of news-watching from 1986, today offered so many images that I am not sure any one thing will stay with me in the same way. And the irony of having viewed that riot of images on the Internet, which Mubarak had turned off in his country, is not lost on me.
I am not one inclined toward prayer, but if I were, I would ask for freedom and peace for our Egyptian sisters and brothers. (And our Tunisian ones. And our Yemeni ones.) Inshallah.