I sense a pattern. Prior to 9/11, our intelligence agencies didn’t speak to one another. We needed the deaths of nearly 3,000 to wake us up to the fact that fighting terrorism requires intra-government coordination and all hands on deck. Prior to a couple of years ago, little national attention was given to the issue of racial discrimination by local police forces. We needed to hear about fatal shootings in Missouri, Ohio and other locations before that issue could be placed before the national consciousness. Prior to the past month, a generation of politicians and mainstream media mavens haven’t bothered to concern themselves with poverty in the inner cities. We needed riots in Baltimore, prompted by the unexplained death of an African-American male who was held in police custody, before poverty was given one tenth the attention on the national stage that had previously been given to the Kardashians.
The list goes on. I would have included the fact that prior to some awful school shootings, we could never summon the national will to support moderate gun control measures. But even after those school shootings, and even after one poll after another demonstrated strong public support for such reforms as requiring background checks at gun shows, our politicians still have refused to enact those reforms. In the case of gun control, it would appear that no number of tragedies and no number of deaths can cause us to change our libertine policies one iota.
But that is an anomaly. The NRA is unusually powerful – it brooks no dissent, and politicians are afraid of any suggestion that they are wavering on the issue of gun control. In other contexts, when major tragedies happen, we do tend to respond, at least to a degree. Most recently, we can see what happened in Philadelphia, when the derailing of an Amtrak train left eight people dead and over 200 injured. It was revealed that the train was traveling at twice the legal speed limit, technology existed to control a train from traveling at such an unsafe speed, and unfortunately that technology was not being used in the area where the accident occurred. So now that we’ve been alerted to the situation, our government has taken steps to ensure that in the near future the proper technology will be used going forward. Problem solved, right?
Not exactly. I am frankly appalled that in the most widely traveled train route in the nation with the world’s largest GNP, we had to wait for multiple deaths before we implemented state-of-the-art technology. An article in the New York Times attributed the failure to implement the technology to “budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles and bureaucratic rules.” Yet when Speaker of the House John Boehner was asked about the role of the Amtrak funding cuts, he responded that this was a “stupid question.” Apparently, even after a terrible accident that exposed our transportation infrastructure as abysmal, the leader of the “People’s House” doesn’t think the media has any place snooping into the issue of whether we are properly funding our nation’s railroad system. Fortunately for Speaker Boehner, whoever asked the question was clearly out of step with the other members of her profession. During the years leading up to this horrible crash, the media did virtually nothing to expose the safety hazards of the Amtrak system. The fact that state-of-the-art technology wasn’t used on these incredibly busy trains should have been common knowledge in America, but the truth is that the public was totally taken by surprise. In other words, while our transportation infrastructure might be awful, our investigative-reporting infrastructure is even worse.
Perhaps this train crash hit me particularly hard because I am a frequent passenger on that very route. But I think the larger point should hit home for all of us. We are not equipped as a nation to confront our worst problems unless and until they result in mass casualties or violence. Even when we do turn our attention to these issues, it remains to be seen whether we have the patience to persevere in finding a solution. For example, I have no doubt that the interest in fighting poverty has increased since the Baltimore riots, but I also have no doubt that this interest will wane now that the riots have stopped and the powers-that-be recognize that confronting poverty requires intelligence and commitment, not just rhetoric.
The idea of waiting for people to die before we even open our eyes to our national nightmares is especially devastating in the area of climate change. We’ve known about this problem for many years and we know that it is likely to be the greatest scourge on our planet by the end of the century. What’s more, we’ve been told by countless scientists that any further delays in addressing the issue could have disastrous implications regardless of what we do in the future. And yet, until we can point to large numbers of deaths here in America and the prospects of an even larger number of American deaths in the near future, I strongly doubt we’ll have the will to do anything meaningful about climate change. The politicians surely won’t have the will all by themselves, but what’s worse is that our media won’t hold their feet to the fires. As they did with Amtrak, the third estate will effectively be lying in wait for morgues to fill up with American victims of climate change. Then and only then are we likely to get to work – putting off to the second half of this century reforms that needed to be in place by the second half of this decade.
I know I sound like Chicken Little. But I don’t really think the sky is falling. We live in a world with unforeseen tragedies, but also one of resilience, and I don’t wish to ignore the possibility that many lives will be saved based on developments that are unknown to us now but that are inherent in the laws of nature or can be summoned by the ingenuity of humankind. So there, you see, the glass may not be totally empty, or even half empty. Predicting the future is never something that can done with certainty. Still, it’s hard to think about the great minds and noble spirits of the generations that preceded us and then reflect on the low standards to which we hold ourselves today. We’ve grown fat, lazy, and self-obsessed. It’s not surprising that we need to see evidence of people dying in large numbers before our leaders will begin to consider lifting a finger to help. Otherwise, when prophets come to warn us about the dangers we’re creating, the only finger we’ll be willing to lift is the middle one.