Yesterday at 5:49 pm I received a text from DC’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency: “Metro reports that 2 trains collided and one train is on top of the other train. Metro reports massive injuries at this time. The green line and the red line are affected. Further information to follow.”
This morning we have much more information. There have been seven, and probably more, fatalities and scores of injuries. It is entirely too early to identify a cause, but signal system failure or operator error are the top suspects. The operator of the colliding train is among the dead.
The dramatic scene of crumpled cars will keep the story near the top of this morning’s television news. DC commuters have a tough day ahead.
Consider how different the tone and scope of reporting — and our response — might be, if the text message had read something like, “Metro reports an explosion on a red line train. Metro reports massive injuries at this time. The green line and the red line are affected. Further information to follow.”
Even if the fatalities and injuries had been fewer and the visual images no more dramatic, for most of us the emotional reaction would be much more agitated if the cause had been a terrorist attack.
Is the difference in response appropriate? Is the difference unavoidable? Are our very different responses helpful?
From an ethical or moral perspective the outrage we feel in response to a terrorist attack is appropriate. The dehumanization that empowers such an attack is worthy of anger and more.
Some neuroscientists argue that the difference we feel depending on the natural, accidental, or intentional origin of an event is innate. The brain’s amygdala reacts with fear and/or outrage, long before the prefrontal cortex begins to “think” about the event.
But when we do begin thinking, how we respond to accident or intention continues to be very different.
Today most of us — especially regular Metro riders — will discount the risk of recurrence. We will, without much emotion, read the news reports and be interested in the eventual NTSB findings. Unless there is credible evidence of gross negligence or a cover-up (which would stimulate outrage) our more analytic tendencies will define our response. We will wait for evidence to inform how technology, hiring, training, and other systems might be improved.
In response to an accident we value deliberation. We approach the situation with a largely detached sense of our innate limitations, but with hope and faith in learning what we can to reduce the likelihood of a similar accident in the future. We recognize that human judgment is involved in and responsible for the system. But unless there is evidence of evil intention or gross negligence, we focus on the system more than the individuals. This is even true when operator error is the principal culprit. We seek to design and build systems that discourage operator error.
In case of an accident rather than blaming and punishing, we usually — most of us — focus on learning and improving. Accidents will happen. We look to systematically minimize accident potential and build a resilient system.
In the aftermath of a terrorist event the emphasis is flipped. We tend to focus mostly on blaming and punishing. Learning and improving the system can easily get lost in the outrage.
Human evil — banal or purposeful — is outrageous. There is no value in suppressing the sharp alarm that responds to evil intention. But outrage is insufficient and not well-suited for long-term strategic action.
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