We’ve been asking a lot of questions about radiation during the past two weeks because there is a lot of interest in the subject.  


This past week we’ve seen the United States, through the Food and Drug Administration, and other countries halt food shipments from some areas of Japan. The areas put off-limit surround the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors.

We’ve also learned it’s unlikely that Japan’s biggest food export to the U.S. — fish — will be a radiation concern because ocean waters will diminish it, and post-9/11 monitoring at airports and seaports will catch anything with an emission.

We also looked at our leafy greens and how the state of California is responding to food safety questions. Levels of radiation that have reached the West Coast and even further inland on the Rocky Mountains are all described as miniscule. 

Yet, I think until sometime after those nuclear reactors are cold and the emergency is over, we will continue to feel queasy about this. In thinking about why, my thoughts went to the “Good Death.”

That’s what historian Drew Gilpin Faust called it in her 2008 book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.”  

Faust wrote about how in the 19th Century there was a concept of the “Good Death,” surrounded by family and friends, and how it came to be at odds with the Civil War’s killing machine.  How much of the “Good Death” thinking has survived into the 21st Century is open for debate, but radiation sickness is not part of the bill.

So distant from Japan, we think more about the potential threat from those smoking nuclear reactors than we do about the 27,000-plus people killed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

In doing so, we are obviously thinking about ourselves.   There’s nothing specifically wrong with this, it’s just that it may be far more primal than we would like to think.