Monday, April 22, 2013

Why is one tragedy headline news, while another is largely overlooked?

I've been bothered by something this past week. Why is it that a terroristic act at the Boston Marathon, and the subsequent lockdown and manhunt, have been headline news all week, while the catastrophe in West, Texas, with much greater loss of life as well as the loss of many families’ homes, has for the most part been only a side note outside of Central Texas? I do not in any way mean to diminish the pain felt by those injured, or that lost loved ones in Boston. It was an atrocious act. But it seems the country is fixated on it simply because it was terrorism.

At least 14 people lost their lives in West, including 12 paramedics and firefighters that were on the scene before the fertilizer plant exploded. An entire apartment complex, many homes, and a part of the middle school are gone. Just because it doesn't have the shock factor of a bomb at a major public event doesn't lessen the tragedy this community is dealing with.

As I started to write this, I couldn’t help but think of the “security theater” Bruce Schneier often writes of. Security theater is when measures are taken to “look” secure while not actually providing any significant reduction in risk, or that are an overreaction to a real threat. The flaw in this sort of response is that it tends to focus on the sensational threat – the sort of threat you might see carried out in a movie – while overlooking more common events that just don’t have the same shock factor. Consider this: which do you fear more, a terrorist bomb, a deranged gunman, or a mosquito bite? According to the CDC, there were 243 deaths last year from West Nile Virus, transmitted by mosquito bites, while according to the National Counter-Terrorism Center 17 US civilians died at the hand of terrorist attacks in the same period.

Bruce has written frequently of the silliness in focusing on the sensational. It’s not because the sensational never happens (alas, it does), but rather because you could never predict every possible plot and prevent it (and to even try would completely upend life as we know it – as evident by the fiasco that is modern air travel). This week highlights a different, and less obvious, problem with security theater. As a nation we have become fixated upon terrorism and elaborate plots, to the point that a terroristic act largely overshadowed a greater catastrophe that was (by all current accounts) an accident.

I am praying for the victims of both events. Whether by the hand of two men intent on causing harm, or through an accidental explosion of an industrial facility, lives were lost, and many dozens more lives were damaged both physically and emotionally.

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