Mark Hammer

Passionate analysis, Peter. Thanks.

This morning, we were awakened to news of the terrible fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. In terms of devastation, injury, and loss of life, it appears at this point, to have been more severe than the Boston bombings.

What separates these two very terrible events? To some extent, it is the presumption of motive behind one, but not the other. And, to the extent that people who could have motives are everywhere, the one elicits our anxiety while the other much less so.

I am well aware, due to my wife’s job checking over WHMIS sheets for completeness and currency, that a great many people work with materials and substances that could pose great risk to them, and those around them, unless used, stored, and disposed of, properly and safely. But we don’t see every manufacturing plant or dry cleaner as a potential source of threat (even though they are, as last night’s Texas tragedy illustrates), because we don’t presume “stuff” to have motives (although some industrial tragedies are a result of the lack of motivation by some). In any given year, far more Americans will be killed, maimed, or have their lives savagely disrupted by industrial accidents than by acts of deliberate attack on the basis of some ill-conceived political or religious motive.

I don’t say any of this to suggest “this boo-boo is bigger than that one”; it’s ALL terrible and the sort of stuff you pray to keep out of the lives of those you care for. Rather, it is more a musing about what shapes our perceptions of risk/threat/safety. If the danger is from “stuff”, we seem to blithely accept it, and carry on about our business, making some minor sensible adjustments here and there.

Will folks who work in, or even near, the fertilizer industry walk around today, thinking that at any moment “it could happen to them”? Maybe. But it will dissipate fairly quickly. By contrast, when any threat is deemed to be based on someone’s motive, anxiety and feelings of being unsafe linger much longer. Part of that is in response to the way in which such events are publicly responded to (e.g., all the announced preparations and precautions, worldwide, at most of the upcoming marathons, as if somehow long-distance races had suddenly become a “target”, equivalent to Iraqi police recruiting offices) and the things that public officials do to convey that they are “taking care of the problem”. Those things tend to prolong the emotional impact of the precipitating events. But another part of it is social mistrust, and the notion that someone – who could be anywhere – may be harbouring malevolent motices, waiting “for the right moment”.

Human perception of risk is a curious thing, innit? And in the contemporary communications era, where our perceptions are shaped more by information from 2nd or 3rd parties than by our own direct experience, even more curious.