Thanks to the media, we can share in a tragedy and empathize with the suffering of others. Almost instantly, we can follow events anywhere in the world: if the media are there to cover them. And the closer to home, the greater the impact of these events. My wife and I find ourselves in tears as we watch the TV news of a coach-load of Belgian children shattered in a road-tunnel accident on their journey home after a skiing holiday in Switzerland. A wave of solidarity sweeps over a deeply divided country (Belgium), quieting divisive quarrels. On our Swiss TV, we have a once-weekly little film at the end of the TV news, where a filmmaker looks at the events of the week. Last Friday’s film was on this tragic accident, and made the point that silence seems to be the best way of marking such tragedies: no words, just silence.
But the media swiftly move on to try to explain. After the ‘what happened?’ they naturally move on to try to apportion blame. The tunnel was recently built and respected all the current safety norms, but should the design of tunnels be revised? The emergency services reacted with rapidity and irreproachable professionalism, but are now dealing with the psychological shock to the some 300 police, ambulance, hospital and emergency services most closely involved.
The vast majority of humanity, through the vast majority of human history, has lived with a quasi-permanent awareness of the fragility of life and the omnipresence of danger. The New England Primer, the most published book in Colonial America, as well as an alphabet and woodcuts of rhymes to help children to learn their ABCs, included several prayers in which the imminence of death, for self, siblings, parents or loves ones was a daily theme. For all of our race, there has never been ‘risk zero’ and there never will be. Of course this should not stop us from constantly battling to reduce risks and dangers, and especially to protect the most vulnerable — which notably includes children. We can and should strive for a world where every human life carries the same irreplaceable value.
It is right that we should be stirred by the deaths of 22 children and six adults. But what about the hundreds and thousands of young and not so young victims farther away, and far from the reach of our media? In rich countries, like mine, we can clearly afford to spend more, to make greater efforts. But let us never forget this norm of fragility. The privileges and protections of our wealth have their limits. Our lives will always remain fragile and limited, but we can stretch our hearts and minds, and our commitments, to reach further than our own community, our own nation.