Monday, August 18, 2008

On the Human Response to a Recent Tragic Event

The morbidity of human nature can be alarming. I recently read that at least 12% of the reduction in traffic speed at the site of an accident is directly attributable to people slowing down simply to stare at the carnage. Two days ago, there was a terrible head-on collision almost directly in front of my place of employment. The front parking lot and the main road that runs past the store were blockaded by emergency personnel, and the eerie scene that was presented whenever one stole a glance out the window was that of flashing lights, reflective vests, and uncountable pieces of vehicle detritus strewn across the landscape.

The only talk that occurred within the store regarded the accident. People asked what happened, were the victims local, how badly were they injured, did you hear it, did you see it? They commented on the tragedy of car accidents, on the foolishness of modern drivers, on the proliferation of accidents in recent weeks, on the unsafe road and the types of individuals that take advantage of it. No one really had any answers and no single person had any better connection to the events than the rest of the people that milled about the store. Rumors that someone died surged in and out of circulation on that day and in the days since, and still no one really knows besides the rescue workers, who aren't obliged to share any information. At times people became visibly agitated when their claims of a fatality were met with skepticism, as though being robbed of the ability to drop such weight on the less-informed was a tragedy in itself. Anyone who claimed to have information was in a position of power, and the occasional struggles between those with conflicting stories were both pathetic and alarming.

What is it about the misfortune of others that piques our interest so? Upon finding out that the accident involved no one they knew, people either launched into even more prodding lines of questioning or seemed to completely lose interest in the event all together, even as it continually threatened to usurp one's attention, unfolding mere yards outside the door. It was as if one type of person were requesting permission to further explore their morbid curiosity, and another type of person found the anonymity of the event not nearly morbid enough. Either way, it seemed as though very few people had a reaction that seemed entirely appropriate.

But who am I to judge the proper response to such an event? I was the one who spent the day chiming in time and time again, answering the questions as they entered the highly charged air.

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