The ordeal of the trapped Pennsylvania coal miners may be yesterday’s headlines, but for a moment, their lives seemed connected with ours. We imagined ourselves imprisoned underground as the water slowly rose and rescuers raced to break through. We hoped they could hang on, huddled together in the dark. Their deliverance seemed a miraculous reprieve, as if the World Trade Center attacks had somehow been averted. But it also made me wonder--while a president who’d cut mine safety budgets embraced the men for the cameras--about those whose injuries and deaths are invisible, whose stories Disney will never tell. How do we decide whose lives we should care about?
The miners aren’t the only Americans who place themselves at daily risk in their jobs. 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 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.
Imagine, though, if the daily workplace deaths and injuries were front and center on the nightly network news. Imagine if we took each instance to heart, the way we did with the ordeal of the threatened miners. To be sure, their story had every conceivable element of drama—unlike 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 nearly ten World Trade Center 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 the recent tax cuts for the wealthiest one in a hundred Americans.
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 real debate, in part so men like the Enron and WorldCom executives can keep every dollar they grab, deeming 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 Pennsylvania miners felt real to us, because we saw their families, heard their stories, and got a sense of them as human beings with lives as weighty, worthy, and complex as our own. They weren’t 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. It’s easier to not look too closely at their lives. Their stories seldom affect us the way the stories of the miners 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. It’s a little harder to do this with dying children, but 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.”
The courage of the Pennsylvania miners and of their rescuers rightly inspires us. 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 as we did these trapped miners? These may not be easy questions to answer. But if we value the lives of these men who we thought were lost but now, astonishingly, are saved, 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.