The week just past had most of us glued to our TVs as one horrible event played out in full view of a national audience while another that would have been equally compelling almost went unnoticed, save for those who were tragically affected by it.
The first was the detonation of the two bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that left three dead and over 170 injured, many seriously. The second was a massive explosion of a fertilizer factory in a small town in Texas (West by name, although it’s actually closer to the middle of the state) that left at least 14 dead, over 100 injured, and as many as 50 homes destroyed or seriously damaged.
In both instances, the causes were secondary in importance to the results for those who suffered from their occurrences. Put another way, as newsworthy as the events were (the one as a possible footnote in the ongoing war on terrorism, the other as a possible example of the inadequate regulation of an industrial activity), the immediate lesson from both is that sudden tragedies are very often the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Boston Marathon bombs were a cruel and despicable conclusion to a joyous event, occurring as it does every year on what Massachusetts dubs “Patriots’ Day,” which commemorates the anniversary (actually April 19) of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It is always marked by a Red Sox home game (played in the morning) and by the running of the marathon (the country’s oldest such race, having been run every year since its inaugural in 1897). Thousands enter the race every year, and tens of thousands cheer on the runners, many doing so at or near the finish line in downtown Boston.
The bombs were detonated about an hour after the first runners had finished, which means the explosions occurred when many of the runners were approaching the finish line. The terrorists who set out to destroy the day for everyone, and, in the process, the lives of those directly affected, were disturbed young men who probably had misguided visions of sainthood and martyrdom in the commission of their evil act.
Their motivations are considered critically important to government officials and cable news producers, but to those crippled by the bombs, those whose lives will never be the same, the reason they did it is less significant than the result of what they did.
Similarly, the explosion of the fertilizer factory may well have been the result of poor maintenance of the plant by an overly greedy owner, or of an incompetently managed operation by inept plant managers, or of a badly regulated industry by an agency that lacks the funding and the legislative authority to keep plants like this one safe, but the result for those who lost loved ones in the blast, or who were badly injured by its effects, or who lost their homes and all they owned from its impact, was far more significant.
In each incident, the damages that resulted were visited on those who were, essentially, at the wrong place at the wrong time.
This point is, perhaps, too obvious to merit much attention. It is very much the equivalent of the “there but for the grace of God, go I” sentiment that was expressed by many runners in the marathon who knew that had they finished just one minute slower or been just one minute faster, they might have been at “ground zero” at the moment of the bombs’ blasts. Similarly, the firefighters who had not yet arrived at the fertilizer plant due to any number of little impediments that got in their way as they rushed to attend to the alarm may have thought of how “lucky” they were to have been delayed. And the point, however it is stated, in no way detracts from the hideous evil that led to the decision to bomb the finish line or to the malfeasance that led to the fertilizer plant explosion.
But in the end, many of the events that befall our fellows, much more than the causes that give rise to them, are all a bit of happenstance. Much of the good or bad fortune that visits everyone, in relatively equal quantities so far as I have been able to determine, does so irrespective of the quality of life that led to that point or the reasons why bombs are detonated and factories explode.
Thornton Wilder explored this theme in his great novel, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.” Why, his narrator asks, did these five humans happen to be on that particular bridge at the moment that it collapsed? Note that the question is not why the bridge collapsed, but why did its collapse occur so as to take the lives of these five, particularly and specifically.
I often find myself studying obituaries (which I am reading far more frequently now that I am older) for the cause of death and for some link to the cause in the life the person lived. Was this victim of lung cancer a smoker, for example? Ah, so that makes sense. That makes it easier to accept. Was this person severely overweight and out of shape? Ah, then the heart attack was not unexpected. Was that person wearing a seat belt? Oh, well that’s why he didn’t survive.
Those rationalizations, however, only take me so far. Seven years ago I got cancer. I hadn’t done anything to suggest I was likely to be a victim of that disease, didn’t even have a family history that suggested I would contract this particular form of it. Still, I got it.
The victims of the Marathon bombs and of the fertilizer plant explosion didn’t do anything to justify or otherwise make their harm acceptable. They weren’t doing anything that should have put them in harm’s way. They weren’t bad people or even negligent in their actions.
They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It isn’t just. It isn’t fair. It just is.