Obama’s ‘death fell from the sky’ line

Speechwriter Ben Rhodes gives his former boss, U.S. President Barrack Obama, full credit for a memorable line in the president’s May 2016 Hiroshima speech (“Ex-Obama adviser rips Trump’s diplomacy,” in the Aug. 21 edition). Is he distancing himself from a piece of ugly wordsmithing?

The line was “death fell from the sky.” It comes at the very beginning of Obama’s speech: “Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed. A flash of light and a wall of fire destroyed a city and demonstrated that mankind possessed the means to destroy itself.”

The line is memorable because it gives laconic voice to something horrendous: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It’s also memorable because it echoes similar laconic lines by the American poet Emily Dickinson.

Dickinson’s poems about death frequently appear in American-literature textbooks.

One such poem begins: “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me.” Death here is spelled with a capital D to name the carriage driver that takes the speaker away on a final journey. By not capitalizing D in “death,” Obama, in his Hiroshima speech, makes it ordinary and commonplace. It falls from the sky like a dead sparrow, say, or a snowflake. Or like rain. By echoing Dickinson to make his speech more memorable, Obama cheapens Dickinson’s poetry.

Obama’s Hiroshima speech trivialized death in another way by calling it “a flash of light.” He used the same line earlier in his April 2009 speech in Prague when he referred to nuclear destruction as “a flash of light.” The Japanese clothes designer Issey Miyake, who grew up in Hiroshima and remembers the explosion, took issue with Obama’s imagery in “A Flash of Memory,” an op-ed published by The New York Times on July 13, 2009.

In “A Quiet Passion,” the biopic about Emily Dickinson that’s now showing in Tokyo, the poet gives full-throated opposition to American hypocrisy. It’s a startling scene. With an equally loud voice, we should decry the imagery Obama uses to allow his country to evade responsibility for the senseless killing of thousands of civilians.

WARREN IWASA
SETAGAYA WARD, TOKYO

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.