Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rationalizing the Irrational

I’m trying to understand my feelings after the tragic events in Boston yesterday.  I understand why I feel so much shock pain from this event and from events like it, such as Newtown and 9/11, but I don't understand why I am less emotional about similar, but more common, tragedies.

Rationally, all premature death is tragic, and equally so.

For example, during the last week, 106 Americans lost their lives to gun violence, including 12 children. In one instance a three-year-old shot himself, in another, a four-year-old shot a six-year-old. Shouldn't those deaths, or all 106, be a national news and national tragedy?  What about the 30 people killed EACH DAY by drunk drivers? Should we lower our flags to half-staff for them or only for those killed “more tragically?” Don’t they deserve a moment of silence in congress? Rationally, they all should be the same. But mentally, I just don’t feel that way and I believe that most of my fellow Americans similarly don’t feel that way.

I struggle with why, in my mind, one death seems to mean more than another death.  Or perhaps it isn't about the loss of life at all, but rather about the loss of liberty, the shattering of innocence, in which a slice of Americana dies that we can never get back.

Obviously, Newtown was worse than Boston. In fact, to me personally, Newton may have been worse than 9/11. I just can’t imagine anything worse than 20+ elementary kids being killed execution style. For some reason, there’s a need to categorize this as a terrorist attack, or something else, as if that will give it more meaning.  Maybe if the origins are bad enough, we'll start another $3T war. I hope not. I guess I don't understand how we all felt equally energized to spend $3T on a war to avenge the 3,000 that died on 9/11 but we aren't all equally energized to spend $1.5B requiring that all cars have a Breathalyzer you must blow into before the engine will start ($100 per 15M cars sold annually).  Presumably that would save 10,000 lives a year and cut driving deaths by more than 25%. Isn't a family killed by a drunk driver just as tragic?

But back to why are some tragic deaths different than others.  Would Newton be a bigger deal if there was better video?  If it was a bomb instead of a gun? Are bombs just scarier?  Is 9/11 such a big deal because we’re pissed about the buildings as well as the dead people… if it’s just about those who lost their lives, then we should be really upset about the 31,672 people who died in 2010 from guns**, shouldn’t we? Yet we undertook $3T in wars due to one, but do nothing about the other.  And I understand that, I feel pissed about 9/11 much more than I am about random gun violence... but rationally should I?  I don’t think so…but I feel so.  This tragedy is huge from a mental standpoint, but “only” 3 people have died…twice that many die in car accidents in NYC every week. So why do I care about these 3 people?

Maybe we feel differently about events like Boston because they feel “preventable” but as we know from car regulation, drunk driving awareness, and from gun statistics, those types of death are preventable as well.

What’s interesting to me is listening to one of the trauma Dr’s talk about the events of the day.  “We were prepared, we deal with trauma every day.” To them, while the number of people they saw may have jumped, they actually do this stuff all the time.  The rest of us only see these large, videotaped events, and not those tragedies that do actually happen every day and are equally tragic.

This directly relates to a similar feeling we all have, the fear of dying in a terrorist attack. We think about it often, especially when flying.  Yet even if there was a terrorist attack every year in NY that killed 100 people, you’re still much more likely to be killed in a car accident or homicide in this city.  So, why don’t we fear those possibilities more?

I literally think about the terrorist possibility, no matter how remote it actually is statistically, to the point that I emailed my wife about it last week. “If I die in a big national tragedy, don't allow politicians or anyone who doesn't know me to attend or speak at funeral/memorial.” This was the rational part of my mind trying to overcome the irrational possibility that is so statistically unlikely I shouldn’t be thinking of it. The rational side doesn’t want my tragic death, after an easy life of luxury, to be “dramatized” when I rationally know I’m not that important. Rationally, there are more tragic things in this world than a guy who’s had quite possibly the luckiest and easiest life ever, dying early. . . Like the 800 million people in the world that have no access to clean water.  That’s a FUCKING tragedy.

I’m not exactly sure what point I’m trying to make here but let met summarize. . .

1)     All tragic death is tragic

2)    Some tragic death matters more than others

3)    I don’t know why
 
**I include suicides b/c the mortality rate of gun suicide is so much higher than by any other means .... 90% mortality vs 3% for drug overdose.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Ok, so there's so much material in here that it's hard to comment on everything - I think you did a great job and I'm just thinking out loud with a week of hindsight.

A few things to add - Natalie Holloway vs. so many other non-blonde white girl missing people. The news covers what gets pageviews/eyeballs/etc.

In fact I read somewhere that CNN, despite their god awful coverage - http://www.buzzfeed.com/dorsey/cnns-jaw-droppingly-awful-hour-of-boston-bombing-coverage - got crazy ratings during the past week. So if anything, it matters that you're first, not that you're right. That's not going to help weave culture-appropriate narratives about death in the future.

The TX explosion - I've heard they had a bad environmental record and a bad safety record. My company does things like Process Hazard Analyses, where you sit down a look at how everything can go wrong and then try to mitigate it. You may end up doing a cost/likelihood analysis and forgoing some extremely unlikely disaster protections, but there are standards for that stuff and that situation could end up as negligence. We probably won't find out because that got pushed back down by Watertown.

I think what it all comes down to is empathy/identification with the victims. It also comes down to the nature of the disaster and the implications of that disaster - for whatever reason, we've grown to accept random gun violence but not slaughters, death by car but not death by bomb. We're not going to outlaw cars because they're not a direct threat to our way of life but terrorism is. If you're like me, you'll know a few ways that cars can be an indirect threat to our lives though. Here's something funny about cars and guns:
http://boingboing.net/2013/04/10/tom-the-dancing-bug-the-path.html

Also, not all death is tragic. Some death is liberating. And I'm oversimplifying your second comment, but cosmically all loss is meaningless. Our news media/culture can attempt to ascribe a certain meaning to anything but ultimately its up to you. Toni Morrison almost gave me a great quote about this - it still kind of works - definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.

Keep up the good work - let me know if you want to read a blog I wrote, there's some of this kind of pontification in there.