From the Seattle Times Feb 19, 2003
[Some overlap of theme with Invisible Casualties]
WHICH DEATHS DO WE MOURN?
Three weeks after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas, we’re still mourning the deaths of the seven astronauts. The accident was tragic, of course. It always is when good men and women needlessly die. But it also made me wonder why we single out certain lives to value more than others. Just two days before the Columbia crashed, an explosion at the West Pharmaceutical Plant in Kinston North Carolina killed four workers and injured 37, some still critically. The plant had been repeatedly cited for serious safety violations, which means the explosion might have been preventable. But we’ve seen no national mourning, no calls for major inquiries on factory safety, no lengthy stories giving a human face to the people who died.
The Kinston factory workers aren’t the only Americans who risk life and limb at work. In a typical year, six thousand workers die from fatal occupational injuries, and fifty thousand from occupational illnesses like asbestosis, brown lung, and workplace-linked cancers. Six million get injured. We don’t talk about these people much. Their lives are invisible, far from the media pundits. They’re often the immigrants and the poor, those most disposable in our culture. Colorado Republicans even passed a recent state law limiting workplace compensation for losing an arm to $36,000, and $2,000 for “serious permanent disfigurement.” And when the Bush administration gutted ergonomics standards that took decades to craft, they assured us the consequences were minimal.
So why do the lives of the astronauts matter more than the workers who died in the fire? Astronauts are glamorous, of course. We dream as children of rocketing into the skies and looking down from heavens. We tend to think of astronauts as some different breed of human, rare heroes who mix scientific passion, physical courage, and a willingness to launch themselves into the unknown. The Columbia explosion inevitably evoked that of the Challenger, which so many of us watched as it happened.
But why don’t we pay more attention to those other tragedies, ones that are lucky to make 30 seconds of network news? Imagine if we took each of the daily workplace deaths and injuries to heart, the way we have with the deaths of the Columbia astronauts. To be sure, the image of an exploding space shuttle is intrinsically dramatic—more so than workplace injury statistics. But most of us rarely even glimpse what it means to go in each day jeopardizing life and health to put food on the table, just as we see little of what it’s like to struggle to get by without adequate health care, housing, or education. These stories get erased from our national consciousness before even surfacing, like the vanished history in George Orwell’s 1984. We never feel the weight of the shattered lives.
Distancing by invisibility happens even more with global life-and-death issues. Thirty thousand people die every day of hunger-related causes worldwide—the equivalent of ten Sept 11 attacks. According to the respected hunger advocacy group Bread for the World, a yearly appropriation of $13 billion would meet their basic health and nutrition needs and save their lives. That’s about what America spends on pet food, or a thirtieth of Bush’s $400-billion-dollar defense budget. We could also cover this amount seven times with the yearly cost of Bush’s spring 2001 tax cuts for the wealthiest one in a hundred Americans, or a fraction of the extra $30 billion a year his latest proposal suggests giving to the same elite group.
But of course we don’t do this. Instead, we pull back from every international aid program conceivable, and when we do participate, ensure that the global poor pay so much for what they receive that many can never even participate. We do this, with barely a shred of debate, so we can transfer still more wealth to those who have vast amounts to begin with. And we deem that privilege more important than the right of children to eat.
You’d think that so many preventable deaths would shock us. They would if we felt their full human impact. But we get little chance to do so. The astronauts feel real to us, because we hear their stories and get a sense of them as human beings with lives as weighty, worthy, and complex as our own. They’re not just statistics. We don’t get that close to those who starve halfway around the world. They remain faceless and anonymous, and our media and our political leaders choose not to make their lives a priority. Nor do most of us even glimpse the daily risks taken by those who work dangerous and life-destroying jobs here at home, earthbound, without the aura of the heavens. It’s easier to not look too closely at their lives. Their stories seldom affect us the way the stories of the astronauts did.
Without this emotional connection, it becomes easy to deny the human toll of the actions we allow to be taken in our common name. We may shrug our shoulders and say we don’t know what to do. When we acknowledge the needless deaths at all, we’ll often treat them as inevitable tragedy: “Children are always dying in Africa.” Sometimes we’ll even blame the victims for their fate. If workers die because employers speed up assembly lines, work them too many hours, or fail to repair dangerous machines, they must simply have been careless. An estimated hundred thousand Iraqis died in the first Gulf war. Many more will die in the one that Bush II is pushing so relentlessly. We avoid looking too closely at their faces, but if we do, our leaders insist that their deaths and prospective deaths are regrettable, but necessary. Even with dying children elsewhere, we have no shortage of pundits who blame the moral character of countries whose treasuries have been drained dry by years of Western-supported dictators and crippling debt payments. As psychologist Edward Opton once wrote about America’s rationalizations for the My Lai massacre “It didn’t happen and besides they deserved it.”
It’s fine to mourn for the astronauts. But their story should also lead us to ask some difficult questions. How are we connected with our fellow human beings, including those who risk their health and lives for our benefit? What does it mean to make so many people routinely expendable in the name of progress, the market, and the American way of life? What would it take to treat the stories of all whose lives are needlessly jeopardized as seriously? These may not be easy questions to answer. But if we heed the lessons of these tragic deaths, they’re questions we ought to start asking.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin’s Press ) and three other books on citizen involvement.