Saturday, January 07, 2006

It's All in the Plot & Numbers

I am in no way saying that the recent mining deaths aren't horrible and all, but I'm always struck with how transfixed the public gets when the story is some variant on little Baby Jessica stuck in a well. For instance, about nine months ago almost the same exact number (14) of oil refinery workers were killed in South Texas.

Those unfortunate folks of course had the additional fortune/misfortune to die quickly in a fireball explosion. As such, no real plot to the story. Things are fine, giant fireball of instant death, people are dead. These mining disasters (and I think the real disaster is that we still mine coal at all) have the magic media/public fascination ingredient of time & plot. In this regard trapped miner stories are just like hurricanes, Ariel Sharon's strokes, Pat Robertson's repeatedly opening his mouth, and ScarGraceKingborough's non-stop coverage of the Natalie Holloway disappearance.

Then there is the whole numbers of dead people thing. I am growing increasingly irritable whenever I hear the word "miracle", and if you think about it, the use of this word is really no different than the crap coming out of Pat Robertson's mouth. To these people, "God's" idea of being God is sitting around like some 5th grader with a magnifying glass, idly deciding whether to burn ants or not. What's that got to do with numbers? Well, in the latest mining disaster, the word "miracle" was thrown around like it came from a scientific journal when it was thought 12 of the 13 miners survived, but that changed when it became clear only one had survived. Now we have a lone "miracle miner". Frankly, that's not enough "miracle" for some folks, and I remember one distraught relative at the scene say on TV something to the effect that "we had a miracle and the mining company took it away from us".

I'm not going down the twisted road of logic to unravel that statement. But on the whole numbers of dead people at a disaster thing, it's a public fixation every bit as strong as the Baby Jessica story itself. Last weekend, for instance, Germany had its own version of the Sago Mine story when heavy snow forced the roof of an busy ice rink to collapse. A real shame and our hearts go out to everybody affected. At the same time, I noticed in my periodic online news reading last weekend that sites like and the New York Times kept updating the story with some sort of slow Chinese Water Torture death count. First time I looked it was four dead, a few hours later, no it was five. Next morning, six. A few hours later it was eight. Evidently the whole total appears to have been 15.

Yes, I realize that news organizations were updating the tally as bodies were pulled from the scene, but my question is what's with the fixation on numbers to start with? I'm not blaming the media exactly, it's all of us. It's like we're studying for a math test in which we must remember exact numbers of dead so we can be correct when we tell others around the water cooler. And yes, people do bust us if we're wrong. Try going to the most public area at your workplace on Monday and loudly announcing "I really feel for those 10 dead miners in West Virginia". Pure fingernails on the chalkboard action.

Not to mention the overarching concept that the degree of tragedy is invariably and directly correlational to the number of dead people. Don't get me started on that. Really, I won't, and I've already violated my self-imposed word count limit. I'd love to, but another time. Oh, temptation...pulling me to type...must stop typing about numbers of dead.....fingers prying off keyboard...

Okay, I can't completely stop, but I'll make this short. Have you noticed how some folks (especially the more weak-kneed "liberals" among us) will say "11 U.S. troops killed in one day? That's proof the Invasion of Iraq is a bad idea." Like it wasn't a bad idea before the 11 troops died? Like if only two or three die in one day it's still an okay idea, but 11? What about six? Is it kind of a bad idea then? There is evidently some sort of unspoken Daily Death Number Continuum on this topic on which I didn't get the Democratic Leadership Conference "liberal" memo. I'll go check my email again to see if I just overlooked it.

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