My partner and I watched the Wednesday morning news in horror as a witness detailed the death of a fellow airline passenger. Jennifer Riordan was killed when one engine of a Southwest Airlines plane came apart and broke a window on the fuselage. Riordan was violently sucked against the window and had to be pulled back in by other passengers.
The scene is nightmarish to imagine and unbelievably cruel to those who were directly affected. It is so terrifying and unfair, in fact, that it nearly immediately forces each of us to consider the exact same question: Could it have been avoided?
Absolutely. There are things that could have been done differently that would have changed the course of events and kept this incident from occurring. For the sake of the hypothetical point, the easiest alternative to consider is that the entire engine, or even just the fan blade that eventually failed, could have been replaced prior to the flight.
It is possible, then, that something could have been done to avoid this terrible tragedy. The waters begin to muddy however, when we blur the lines between the concepts of “could” and “should”. Due to the extremely unpleasant nature of the situation, it is both easy and tempting to misconstrue the two concepts as being inextricably linked. In other words, it’s natural for us to want to believe that if the accident could have been avoided, it then should have been.
On the surface, it may seem ridiculous to even entertain otherwise. A woman, (who was, by all accounts, pretty amazing) lost her life. Her family and friends, I’m sure, are devastated. Her fellow passengers are mortified and some will probably be negatively affected for life. Given the ability to make such a determination, any sane person would choose that this had never happened and would never happen again.
It is from this emotional position that we then normally proceed with the assumption that such an incident not only could have been avoided, but also should have been avoided.
The truth is, though, that the in-flight crew handled the situation commendably. It’s also true that the ground crew thoroughly and adequately performed the scheduled inspections.
There was no way, experts say, for the internal flaw in the fan blade that caused the failure of the engine to have been detected through visual inspection or via the recommended maintenance schedule. The aircraft was up to date on all of its maintenance and inspections, and the inspections and replacements that had the potential to result in the avoidance of this tragedy were not due for a significant amount of time.
That does not, and should not, make this wonderful woman’s death any easier to swallow. Reason should not trump compassion. That does not, however, negate the existence of reason completely.
Still, airline maintenance procedures are not a universal truth. Perhaps they are wrong; perhaps they’re inadequate. Perhaps they need to be revamped.
That is entirely possible, and those possibilities should be thoroughly investigated. It can be healthy and productive to consider that in a given situation we might be able to do things better, to make things safer, to avoid those tragedies we all want so badly to avoid.
Armed with this belief, we charge into the world and begin tackling one catastrophe at a time. The daily deluge of modern information drowns us in a relentless surge of unfortunate happenings. We consume them, obsess over them, dissect them, and critique them.
Each one of them is fixable, and, if at first it doesn’t seem that way, then we simply aren’t looking closely enough. Each individual unfortunate instance can be avoided, and if each one can individually be avoided, then they can all be avoided, we begin to assume.
There is, however, a significant something to be said for perspective and how it alters our expectation. There’s a point to be made about the probability of individual events versus the probability of continually avoiding something, and that point is perhaps best illustrated with a simple, clear analogy.
The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead opens with the two title characters betting on coin flips. The philosophical point in question is one of probability and is at the crux of our discussion of and views on accident/tragedy avoidance.
All things considered equal, the probability that a coin will come up heads on any one flip is 50% or 1 out of 2. It doesn’t matter what happens before or after that flip. If we only consider that one particular flip in isolation, those are our odds.
If you change the question, though, if you change the scope of observation, the probability being considered changes drastically. Flipping a coin one time, any one time, gives a 50% chance for a heads result that time. However, the probability that a coin will land on heads 92 times in a row (as happens in the play) is incredibly small. The probability of one thing happening (or not happening; and thus, being avoided) in one instance does not remain unchanged for that thing happening (or not happening) in perpetuity.
The idea behind the probability of avoiding tragic accidents is not identical but also not entirely dissimilar. While we can almost always determine (at least hypothetically and in retrospect) a course of action that would undoubtedly have allowed for the avoidance of a tragic incident, we shouldn’t allow this to deceive us into believing that we should, now or at some point in the future, be able to avoid all tragic accidents.
Stated generally and comprehensively like that, most people will agree with the previous statement. People usually reluctantly agree that “accidents will happen” when considered as a collective group. What people are sometimes unwilling to do, however, is to accept that any one incident may be the one in which the larger probability materializes.
In other words, we can accept that in a large number of coin flips, it is likely that at least one may come up “tails”. However, we have a hard time accepting that any one coin flip, taken individually, is the one that comes up “tails.”
“What’s wrong with that?” you may ask. Where’s the harm in refusing to accept tragedy?
I believe it’s in how it affects coping. It’s in how it affects survival. If we’re destined to exist in a universe where at least some of the coin flips are likely to come up “tails” at least some of the time due to sheer probability, then it can only be healthier and more comfortable for us to accept that as being true, even if it’s not very comforting in the moment.
The tragic incident aboard that Southwest Airlines flight earlier this week helped me realize something about myself. I immediately assume that incompetence or lack of foresight has to be the cause of every individual catastrophe because it is too frightening to truly accept (not just intellectually, but emotionally) that probability dictates that all manner of results (not just the good ones) will occur at some time or another.
If I don’t give it rational thought, I “feel” that I’m entitled to some safety, some certainty, some option for ensuring that everything works out predictably. That’s a defense mechanism, though. I’ve adopted the avoidance of unbiased rationalization rather than accepting that avoidance of tragedy isn’t a constant and eternal option.