Lessons from a Tragedy

It’s easy to think that the world is falling apart and closing in upon us. We hear of the threats from North Korea or bombs in downtown Boston and ask ourselves what the world has come to and how we can stop it. If the post-9/11 era can be defined by a feeling, it’s the feeling of vulnerability. Our enemies, it seems, are no longer defined by convenient borders and no longer wear uniforms on the battlefield. They are harder to identify and this terrifies us. We spend much of our lives fearing invisible foes.

Sometimes people respond to these threats by calling for constant monitoring. Sometimes people respond by contemplating moving to another town or another nation. Sometimes they arm themselves, discounting the far greater likelihood of an accident against the chance of a home invasion. All of these are the wrong lesson. We live in one of the safest parts of ones of the safest countries in the safest era of human history.

As a child, I would roam my neighborhood free from that fear. I would walk home with my friends unaccompanied by adults. I would spend countless hours in the woods without anyone aware of my current whereabouts. My sister, currently 12 and raised in the post-9/11 era of cable news and the Internet, doesn’t get to experience these simple joys; my parents don’t want to take the risk that she’ll be abducted off the street by a stranger. Never mind that such tragedy only befalls about 30 Americans per year. In this my parents aren’t alone.

Yes, there is danger in society and in life; when you go for a drive, wander through a dangerous neighborhood or meet up with a stranger, there is a chance that you will die. But that chance is smaller than at any previous point in time. Cars make travel safer than ever thanks to increasing sophistication. Features like seatbelts and airbags were unheard of when our parents grew up. And in history, horse-drawn carriages frequently caused fatalities. Ships bearing goods and hundreds of people across the oceans often disappeared.

Despite the stories about rampant gun violence in society, the murder and violent crime rates have also hit record lows. Interstate warfare has all but vanished, and the daily risk of nuclear annihilation that characterized the Cold War era has faded into the past. Conquering warlords like Ghengis or Attila who proudly put entire nations to the sword remain little more than the stuff of legends. Skirmishes that once pitted family against family, village against village and tribe against tribe now seem absurd and archaic, but they were once a fact of existence. The rampant, gratuitous-seeming violence of “Game of Thrones” is drawn from the real-life examples of the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years War. Wars of conquest are no longer recognized as a legitimate tool of nation building. The young men who might once have fought in them now instead spend that time playing competitive sports or video games that merely simulate that viciousness. When we decry those activities as corrupting primers of violent behavior, we forget just how far we have come.

The types of epidemics that once wiped out meaningful percentages of the world’s inhabitants — think of the Spanish flu or the bubonic plague — have retreated, beaten back by modern medicine. Lifespans have grown and infant mortality has fallen. Over all, the trend of human development has been overwhelmingly positive.

As every tragedy reminds us, most people are fundamentally good and help others when given the opportunity. I’m thinking about the runners who finished the Boston Marathon, heard the explosions, and then went straight to the hospital to donate blood. I’m talking about the teachers who sheltered their students against a killer in Newtown at the cost of their own lives. I’m talking about the firefighters who waded into the crumbling Twin Towers.

The fact that we are capable of performing these actions — of putting aside our individual identity for the good of the group when necessity calls — is one of the shining accomplishments of humanity. It’s why disasters like what happened in Boston this week are so shocking. Not because they are common but because they are so rare; not because our experience of life is so separated but because we are all now more connected than ever before. In the modern era, the people of Boston and Aurora and Chicago are all our neighbors. Their pain travels at the speed of light, with color, sound, motion and emotion. We must not confuse the unprecedented information we can access with increasing levels of danger.

 

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