Friday, May 12, 2006

Bad news vs. even worse news

This morning when I went to Yahoo to check my email, I saw a headline about a blast in Nigeria that had killed two hundred people.

The original headline (it's been slightly changed now) didn't make the accidental nature of the explosion at all clear. So my first thought, of course, was terrorism.

But when I read the first few paragraphs it became apparent that that first thought of mine was wrong. Although the cause of the blast is still not exactly certain, this was the actual situation:

The villagers had been collecting the gushing fuel outside the coastal village of Ilado, about 30 miles east of the main Nigerian city of Lagos, when the fuel ignited, police and rescue workers said.

The dead are just as dead. But it appears to be a tragedy rather than a crime or an act of war.

My point? Ever since 9/11, when I hear about something like this, my first assumption is terrorism. It's now the default position--whereas, prior to 9/11, the reverse was true.

It's certainly not that terrorist attacks weren't commonplace before, but it was easier to relegate them to the background. That shouldn't have been the case--we know that now--but for so many of us, that's the way it was.

Perhaps it's just the way the human mind and heart tends to work. We don't like to face the reality of the threat until it's made unequivocal. We don't want to have to peer too closely into the heart of darkness. And too often we don't want to have to do something about it until it's close to being too late.

In this case and many others, I'm relieved to be incorrect. My sorrow remains at the loss of life. But there are degrees of terribleness in human events, and causes do matter.


At 2:00 PM, May 12, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad but true - "Who did it?" is now the default question on people's minds when they hear about stuff like this.

It's weird to think that no more than a hundred years ago we would probably never have heard of this incident. Maybe only if we lived in a large town or city and read the papers regularly. Is it better or worse to know about tragedies that you, personally, can do nothing about? Take your choice: Blissfully ignorant or frustratingly impotent. No idea.

I recognize that there are Nigerian expats who need to know, as well as politicians, business people, and liberals (for whom "your tragedy is our business"). Personally, though, I might prefer not to know than to know and feel helpless. It helps to protect your mind from other people's priorities.

At 2:38 PM, May 12, 2006, Blogger Elmondohummus said...

That's reminicent of the airplane crash in Queens not too long after 9/11. Remember that the first thoughts of many were also that it was terrorism, not something else (wasn't it eventually ruled as mechanical failure? I don't remember...).

I think the lesson here is patience and balance. I personally don't see anything wrong with coming to an individual conclusion that this may be terrorism -- after all, in the abscence of information describing the circumstances, that's a valid conclusion -- but in all things, folks should wait for all due info to propogate before actually taking actions. Except for the emergency care providers, of course, but those folks don't need to know whether an event is an accident or a deliberate act, they only need to know "How many injured", "how bad", etc. (in other words, functional information, not causative). But anyway... patience in getting as big a picture as possible, and balance in the processing of such info.

As an example: Take the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. The first thought was terrorism, but it was incorrect in that it was guessed to be Islamic terrorism. I hate to sound prejudiced -- and I'll probably be flamed for saying this, but here goes: That was a legitimate possibility, so it's a legitimate initial conclusion. There was nothing wrong in thinking that initially. Nothing at all. But the balance was there anyway, and it helped clarify the situation. It came in the investigative shift from radical militant Islamicists to the homegrown radical type epitomized by Timothy McVeigh. The initial personal conclusions may have been wrong, but the investigators retained enough balance, personal and professional, to realize that their evidence was leading them in a different direction, so they had no problem following the evidence where it lead.

Contrast that to too many Arabic writers and politicians, who in the face of the very strong evidence, still insist on blaming either the CIA or Israel for 9/11. No balance. Their prejudices are dicating their final judgements. Granted, I personally believe many of them don't actually believe what they're saying -- I believe many are purposefully stating this untruth in order to displace blame and distract others from the real problem. But, the point is that the ones saying this don't have the intellectual balance to rise above the group judgement and state the bald truth. Some do, thank goodness. But too many don't. The balance is lacking. And they're not expending any patience in waiting for the evidence to properly build an accurate a picture as necessary. Patience and Balance is the ultimate lesson here. We all cannot avoid our initial conclusions to events -- we all have worldviews, and they do shape our perceptions -- but we can have the patience to admit that initial conclusions need modification based on newly discovered information, and the intellectual balance to realize that such info will change the picture.

At 3:26 PM, May 12, 2006, Blogger The probligo said...

Elmondohummis, thank you for your quite enlightened comment.

But, like Dafur, this is not a new problem...

Since the British discovered oil in the Niger Delta in the late 1950s, the oil industry has been marred by political and economic strife largely due to a long history of corrupt military regimes and complicity of multinational corporations, notably Royal Dutch Shell. Despite this, it was not until the early 1990s that the situation was given international attention, particularly following the murder by the Nigerian state of playwright and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, provoking the immediate suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth of Nations. Nigeria is identified by the international community and the firms in operation there as a major concern with regards to human rights and environmental degradation. The Nigerian government, oil corporations, and oil-dependent Western countries have been criticized as too slow to implement reforms aimed at aiding a desperately under-developed area and remediating the unsustainable environmental degradation that petroleum extraction has wrought.

From -

At 10:25 AM, May 13, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

My point? Ever since 9/11, when I hear about something like this, my first assumption is terrorism. It's now the default position--whereas, prior to 9/11, the reverse was true.

I used to have that mentality, right after 9/11. It's passed away really, given that I'm more prepared psychologically, and I focus on pragmatic matters. Whether it is terrorism or not, doesn't really matter, only where it is, what it means, and who perpetrated it. The tactical and strategic picture, first.

It is a healthy phenomenon. It allows you to prepare yourself psychologically for the worst. Thus, you feel curiously relieved if you find out otherwise. This is as opposed to the other case, if you thought the plane crash on 9/11 was an accident and then you found out it was terrorism. Different psychological effects.


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