Syrian refugees are drowning at sea and will soon be dying of cold as they try to make their way across central Europe. Palestinian teenagers are knifing Israelis and being shot down by police and others. Ethiopians are starving while their cows die of thirst. Ninety Americans (including suicides) die from guns every day. Children in Pakistan (and here too) are dying of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Well, whatever, right?
As President Obama said after the Umpqua Community College massacre:
Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.
It’s only human to develop a self-protective tolerance for disasters, especially when they happen to other people. Meanwhile, we are driven crazy by a barking dog across the street, a too-chatty friend, or a mosquito in the bedroom.
Some people are wired to pitch in to help on causes of principle. But most of us focus on what’s around us or what becomes so vivid that we can no longer ignore it.
Actual progress in this country tends to come when a lot of Americans start seeing a problem in a new way.
After almost 150 women, mostly immigrants, perished (over 50 by jumping out upper-floor windows) in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, the labor union and workplace safety movements finally took off in this country.
In more recent memory, we stamped out smoking in public places and offices when people got tired of breathing others’ smoke, saw children being sickened, grasped the awfulness of lung cancer, and saw tobacco executives repeatedly lying in public and to Congress.
We (mostly) protected our waterways against indiscriminate dumping of chemicals and wastes after fish died and rivers started catching fire from the toxic chemicals at their surface.
The scene, from the Gaslands movie, of tap water being lit on fire (see excerpt on YouTube, source of this image) did more to help people see the problem of natural gas fracking than whole shelves of reports. And when people, as is happening now in Westtown, receive easement notices that whether they say Yes or No, a company will be using some of their property to build a gas pipeline, the pipeline issue is suddenly brought close to home.
When people’s children are shot and killed, they see the gun safety issue differently than at a distance, and some of them, like journalist Allison Parker’s father, become overnight activists.
But there are a lot of issues that just haven’t yet made it into the collective action agenda. US-allied Afghan warlords use children as sex slaves. Impoverished inner-city and rural Americans are losing desperately needed social services. American women are faced with seeking illegal abortions as services to women are carved back. Russia and the U.S. point thousands of nuclear-armed missiles at each other. Low-lying Pacific countries are evacuated as the waters rise…. Oh well, “somehow this has become routine.”
People who care deeply about changing our society and world (or preserving them in a livable condition) keep working away to influence public perceptions but public perceptions are slow to catch up with reality.
Now look back to the first paragraph above: those issues do seem today to be reaching the often-mentioned “tipping point.” When such matters of life and death enter into presidential campaign debates, we know that people are finally starting to pay attention and words may soon give way to action.
The lofty principles our nation was founded on demand action when such abuses pervade our national consciousness.