Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Tragedy and grief

The great train wreck…

… one of the worst ever in this country -- happened on April 26, 1946, in Naperville, [Illinois] where the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's Exposition Flyer, racing at 85 mph, rammed into the back of the railroad's Advance Flyer, which was stopped in the Naperville station. The wreck killed 45 people and injured more than 100.

SCN Media August 2005

I remember this tragedy very well because my father was a welder and my mother was a nurse. He had to help to cut apart the steel cars to free the injured and in the recovery of bodies, and she assisted in the medical help that could then be provided—we would call it triaging today. But this was 1946, and while it made the front page of the Chicago Tribune the next day, and it certainly had a mention in papers in other cities, that was pretty much it from a news perspective.

I recount this story to compare it to the tragedy this week that occurred at Virginia Tech, where a shooter killed 31 students and a teacher, and then himself. I can mention that one of my granddaughters attends this school.

In this instance, as you are all no doubt aware, thousands of people, nearly the entire resources of the country's news media were, and remain, almost entirely mobilized for this tragedy. Officials and dignitaries up to and including the president of the United States feel compelled to articulate the nation's pain and sympathy. Classes are canceled for the week while grief counselors from around the country focus on Blacksburg Virginia to begin the work of working through this catastrophe. The aim of this massive effort: to ease mental anguish and trauma for the tens of thousands involved personally in this event, however peripherally, and for those millions who simply share the sense of grief and sadness that has been so amplified through the vast resources of modern day news.

The question that an old man like me asks himself is this: Is all this angst a good thing? I suppose a case can be made that sympathy for one's fellow man, more absent then present in history, can never be all bad. But I wonder: Does there come a point when this orgy of tragedy and grief, of sharing and sadness, becomes counterproductive?

It seems to me that this grief and sympathy is of a piece with the western world's increasing intolerance of risk, and our short attention span for the effort of protecting ourselves from people in the world who do not yet share, and perhaps cannot yet afford, our pampered psyches, people proven much more dangerous than the shooter at Virginia Tech.

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