Dr Winford James

Not supposed to happen?

By Dr. Winford James
September 11, 2005
Posted: September 20, 2005

It is an uncomfortable truth that humans are a flawed species, and perhaps the greatest flaw is that we die as individuals, often very tragically. I say 'perhaps' because as a species we are great at self-renewal through procreation. But as individuals we would like to live 'forever' - in vitality, peace, and happiness, of course - and so strong is the desire that we have invented a variety of belief systems that have the righteous among us living on, essentially through bodily change of various sorts. The strong desire to inhabit eternity combines with the sure knowledge that we will die to cause us bewilderment in the face of our ubiquitous tragedies, and so we find ourselves muttering the fundamentally meaningless sentence 'This was not supposed to happen.'

Wars and genocides have taken billions of lives over time, but they were not supposed to happen. In an unforgivable mischief, warmongering America invaded hapless Iraq, destroying thousands of lives, the vast majority of them Iraqi, but the continuing loss of the comparatively few young American lives was not supposed to happen. Hurricane Katrina produced tides that breached New Orleans' inadequate levees, letting in the sea in murderous floods, and leaving uncounted thousands dead, but this unbelievable tragedy was not supposed to happen - not in America; and many of the weak - the elderly, the sick, the handicapped, children - died because of the federal government's sloth, it seems, in flying in supplies of food, water, and medicine, but this was not supposed to happen. And here at home, 14-year-old Aneisha dies in a panyard in a hail of bullets from a crazed gunman, but this was not supposed to happen.

What does the phrase 'not supposed to happen' mean? At the first level of meaning, it clearly suggests that the user did not expect a tragedy to happen, but at other levels of meaning, it also suggests that the user is nonplussed as she thinks that the tragedy was avoidable through the right safeguards.

What are the right safeguards for a species prone to tragedy?

What are they in the case of war perpetrated by a superpower against a weakling? Abject, unconditional surrender by the weakling? What are they in the case of levees too weak to keep out tides of unanticipated power? Better research, knowledge, and engineering? Less stingy funding for coastal protection? Wiser selection of a city site? What are they in the case of the weak succumbing to hunger, cold, flood, and violence from the desperate strong? Stronger support systems, given their condition? Stronger personal security systems? What are they in the case of little Aneisha? Avoidance of the panyard? Gun control? Conversion of the violent spirit and heart?

I submit that there are safeguards but no a priori right safeguards. As the TV ad says, You can plan but you can't predict. Accident, acts of God, incomprehensive planning, unforeseeable events dog the flawed human step. Wars, weak levees, inadequate funding, poor choice of residence, human physical weakness, and murder are avoidable, I suppose, but the problem is knowing what are the best conditions for avoiding them in particular situations. Aneisha would have avoided death by staying away from the panyard on that fateful night, but how was she or her mother and friends to know that a madman would spray bullets in her direction, just like that?

What to do, then? Is the species doomed to helplessness in the face of tragedy?

We must and will carry on in spite of our relentless tragedies, and there is no doubt that with better and better planning informed by research and experience we will achieve higher and higher levels of mitigation. But when we have done our best and tragedy still strikes, it seems we will have to invoke miracles. How can we possibly escape them?

A miracle is a bligh of uncertain provenance in conditions of bewildering tragedy!