UPDATE at the bottom.
We've seen the headlines: "Church Burns, Miracle Baby Survives" followed by quotes like "Jesus was watching little Jessica that day." And then there's no mention of the 200 people inside who suffered a horrific death. The baby's survival is attributed to a higher force, and the victims were just statistics.
It seems to me, and I'm sure many of you, that if a higher power was involved, she/he/it deserves credit for the tragedy as well as the remarkable survival. Unfortunately, people don't want to focus on the tragedy, and that's why today's article in USA Today entitled "Engineers: Passengers' survival was miracle by design" and the linked ABC Frontline video are so interesting.
Writer Alan Levin reports that the reason so few people died in the catastrophic crash of an AIRES 737 is the conscious effort of engineers, designers, and regulatory agencies to make planes safer. To recap, the plane landed just short of the runway in bad weather and broke into several pieces. There was only one fatality, and that was attributed to a heart attack and not directly caused by the wreck.
Since 2005, there have been seven similar incidents in which planes have crashed, but there has been little or no loss of life. A miracle? Have we been blessed?
There is no need for divine intervention to explain this. We did it.
So my hat's off to Frontline, Alan Levin and USA Today for the article, and to all the people involved in making air travel safer. Thank you.
Alas, that's not my only point here.
I think there is a benefit to focussing on the good fortune of survivors over the tragedy of victims. We do this all the time... you get in a wreck, and you're upset for many reasons – your car is trashed, you're going to miss the appointment you were driving to, your insurance will be going up, etc. Your first reactions are sadness and anger. But eventually someone will point out "At least you're alive." And then you have to consider how lucky you are to be living in a time where cars are designed with safety in mind. That airbag and those crush cans under the hood may very well have saved your life.
And I think that's a healthier outlook than wallowing in the personal loss that you've just experienced. It's also accurate. You DO have something to celebrate in a tragedy, almost any tragedy, because it most certainly could have been worse. It's a fine time to recognize the efforts of those who've made it so. But it's also a time to recognize the responsibility you have.
If a tragedy occurs, it's the responsibility of the individuals involved and society as a whole to examine the tragedy, and determine what, if anything, should be done to try to prevent or ameliorate such events in the future. In the car crash example, maybe you were driving while texting – or maybe you were hit by a drunk driver on the wrong side of the road. In the first case, STOP THAT. (I have). In the second, you probably couldn't have avoided the accident, so society must find a solution. (We haven't yet.)
While both "Thank you God!" and "Thank you engineers!" might produce the same palliative effect, "Thank you engineers!" is a much more honest and accurate sentiment. It empowers us to make things better, where "Thank you God" just makes some of us feel better. It also absolves us of responsibility, and that's a problem. If you're a religious person, by all means thank whatever form of god you're worshipping, but don't let that blind you to the fact that you have an opportunity and even an obligation to be a part of a solution to help prevent these tragedies in the first place.
Even if there is a higher power up there who dictated the actions of engineers or moved the tree slightly to the left so it wouldn't crush your skull, the engineers in the AIRES 737 example deserve credit. They rarely get it, and that's why the media approach to this incident is a "miracle."
Ok, it's not a miracle, but it sure is nice to see competent journalism. I'd like to see more.
UPDATE: I was just contacted by Patrick Smith who wrote a similar article for Salon on August 18th. (I wrote my article on August 19th.) There's an interesting story about the similarities between the two articles that I will relate in a follow up article this weekend. In the mean time, please read his excellent article.