Thursday, April 18, 2013

Boston & Texas: Why Meaning Matters More Than Numbers

On Monday, two bombs went off in a crowd of spectators near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious sporting events. Three people were killed and over 180 injured, some seriously. The event was quickly labelled an act of terrorism.

On Tuesday, a large explosion leveled a fertilizer plant in near Waco, Texas. With reports still coming in, the blast injured about 160 people, killed up to 15, and leveled dozens of buildings and homes including 60-80 houses and a 50-unit apartment building. News reports as of this writing seem to indicate an accident as the likeliest cause - though we will know more in the coming days.

The responses to both events, terrorism and (apparent) accident, tell us a lot about how we view danger, violence, and threats in the modern world.

Economists (prominently including the authors of Freakonomics) love to point out that we over-estimate some dangers and threats and under-estimate others. When we hear a couple of stories about sharks attacking swimmers, we overestimate the likelihood that we ourselves might be attacked - and so stay away from the ocean. We forget about the far greater likelihood of being killed in a car accident, or by any of a number of other less visible things that kill many thousands every year.

While these are good reminders about how bad we are at probabilities and math (which is important), these analyses miss the point. They do so with a classic economics mistake - assuming that one death is very much like another, or (in economics-speak) that death is fungible. Dead is dead, after all.

But our collective responses to the Boston and West, TX events show otherwise. Death is not just event, one equivalent to another. Death has meaning, and so how we die has meaning. That meaning changes the very character of how we perceive death and how we shape our responses to it.

Assuming that no link is found to criminal or nefarious activity (and as of this time, none has been suggested), the West, TX explosion is an accidental tragedy. A fire broke out at a factory which unfortunately had large concentrations of explosive substances. Disaster ensued. But the disaster was (in this narrative) not intended, directed, or caused by any person. We may discover in the future that it was the byproduct of negligence or sloppiness or bad maintenance. But nobody meant for those people to be injured or die.

The Boston explosions are an entirely different animal - even though the damage caused was far less (in both deaths and property destruction). These were clearly a work of malevolence. It is no accident that the first fatality victim identified, and probably the best well-known, is an 8 year old boy - the very definition of an innocent. We don't just feel hurt by these explosions; we feel attacked.

And that is the fundamental distinction, the point that economists miss. Whether I die from an accidental fire or a homicide matters. Human malevolence, alone among all the possible causes of death, is the one that bothers us the most. There are many reasons why this might be - because we feel it should be the most preventable, because we feel the wrongness of it, because we are confronted with our own feelings of anger and hatred that can lead down that road. But for whatever reason, death by the deliberate targeted action of another affects us differently than any other kind.

Both of these stories are national news. Boston will go on being national news for a lot longer, as we sift through the questions - who? and why? chief among them - that accidental explosions do not pose. The memory of the victims of Boston will stay with us, as will the images of response - the pairing of New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox logos, for example, or the singing of "Sweet Caroline" at a Yankees game. All of these things move us, even those of us far away from either event, in a way that accidental tragedy does not.

This is not to say that the victims of both events are not deserving of sympathy and support - and both will be given. But these things feel different. And however much we try to be rational in our policies and responses, that feeling matters for what we do. Many stories are tragic, but not all tragedies affect us in the same way. Statistics and death tolls, in the end, are not the final arbiter - narrative and meaning are. And in a way, that is very smart of us - because we often can't control the statistics, but we can work together to build meaning.

No comments:

Post a Comment