Thursday, July 05, 2012


It's Independence Day, basically, so I thought I'd take some time to talk about freedom. I'm taking the long way around, so bear with me. The freedom part comes at the end.

When I was fourteen years old (or so), one of my classmates had a family tragedy that boggled the mind. His younger sister, Eileen, was killed in the playground of her school when a flagpole fell on her in the schoolyard. Yes, you read that correctly...she was hit by a falling flagpole. It's always terrible when a child dies, and doubly so when the cause of death is a freak accident. I was thinking about this the other day and it came to me that such a hideous event would have had a much wider social impact had it happened not in 1983 but in 2012.

As older readers will remember, news was very different back then; if you didn't catch something on the evening news, or read about it in the day's paper, you didn't hear about it, period. Oh, there was neighborhood talk, but most of that was wrong and even the most horrific and scurrilous gossip quickly gets stale. Today, news of that event would have been all over the Internet within minutes. There would be tweets, Facebook status updates, blog posts, threads on discussion groups. There would be video clips of interviews with the family, neighbors, school officials, local authorities. People in Bangladesh would have the same ability to get the story as those who lived one block from the school. Those who miraculously missed the initial information blast would forever be able to turn to Wikipedia.

Prompted by this media blitz, there would be criminal investigations into the maintenance staff responsible for making sure the flagpole didn't fall. Schools all over the nation would spend boatloads of cash taking down flagpoles and purchasing flagpole insurance. Parents would be told to send their kids to school with helmets, for use during recess play. There would be a raft of "Eileen's Laws" that would threaten civil and criminal penalties for shoddy flagpole maintenance. It would be a Wave-Motion Gun of fear and recrimination beamed directly to the PCs, iPhones and Twitter feeds of Americans from Maine to California.

We in America talk often about freedom, but there are two kinds of freedom, really. There is freedom to, which is what usually comes to mind. We have freedom to express ourselves, freedom to vote, freedom to choose our relationships and careers. We don't often consider freedom from, which is unsurprising since that particular liberty is much rarer. Before the Affordable Care Act we did not have freedom from insurance company abuses. We still do not have freedom from poverty, or freedom from illness, or freedom from losing our jobs. And, as the example of the flagpole shows, we don't have freedom from fear.

Fear is what separates what happened in 1983 from what would have happened in 2012. Because we didn't hear about poor Eileen non-stop, for days and days on end, we didn't spend much time worrying about the dangers of schoolyard flagpoles. Nor should we; flagpoles very rarely fall over and kill schoolchildren. Similarly, people are very rarely murdered, swimmers are very rarely attacked by sharks, and so on. Yes, these things do happen, and although it's wise to take sensible precautions to avoid them...well, you don't swim in shark territory when you're bleeding, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't ever swim anywhere.

Bad things happen, but as Bruce Schneier says, the definition of news is stuff that rarely happens. Just because something is blasted all over the Internet does not mean we should fear that it will happen to us, or to someone we know. Fear can't keep you from dying, but it sure can hold you back from living. And I'd like freedom from that.


Blogger Star said...

Well said !

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

2 were killed. Eileen and Maureen Wisely. I was there. Others were hurt. Great article. Not sure how I found this but it caught me off guard.

8:25 PM  
Blogger Neil McGarry said...

I didn't know that, and I hope this post doesn't come across as insensitive. I don't in any way mean to diminish the tragedy; I was just trying to comment about media effects on fear.

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was there. I was missed by less than a foot. I don't go one day without the picture of that day replaying in my mind. If I was bombarded by social media at that time, my brain would have been fried by rumor and bad reporting by people who don't know what they were talking about.
I am to this day terrified by high winds and shaking poles or trees. I thank God the only news of this horrible event were only reported by TV news and newspapers. My parents were able to protect my 12 year old head and heart from the events that killed my 2 friends and injured 5 others. An event that missed me by inches, and that more importantly, traumatized me because when I turned to see why that yard fell silent I saw my friend, at my feet, her head crushed. Images of her lying on the ground, bleeding; others crying in pain and teachers screaming at us to get in school to safety. Aids gathering us in their arms covering our eyes, will never stop playing in my mind as I stood there frozen in fear, unable to move.
Social media and rumors, lies, false reports and opinion could have traumatized me worse. Forever.

4:45 PM  
Blogger Neil McGarry said...

That must have been a terrible thing to experience, I cannot imagine. Thank you for sharing.

8:30 PM  

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