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A Duty-Free Fable

NYTimes

We’ve all played the Monday morning quarterback game (or in my case the “still in previews, there’s time to fix this show” game.) The impetus for second guessing decisions is not as thoroughly obnoxious as it seems. Analyzing how others behave helps us to assess our own behavior and inform future acts. As we go through life we learn more about people and about the land mines of life that can lead to curious behavior. Most of us have a fertile enough imagination to explain most exhibited behaviors. And in a pinch; most anything can be explained away with; “They must be having a bad day.” Even when we see something bordering on the unexplainable we can piece together the mother of all soap opera story lines to make sense of our world. (Ex., That older woman throwing cantaloupes at the 16-year-old cashier just found out that she’s lost every penny of her savings, her only child just called to tell her she wants nothing to do with her, her husband just left her after 40 years of marriage, but not before telling her about his other family, and her doctor just called with the test results.)

We can empathize when we see people in large groups behaving oddly as well. When reading about passengers fleeing a crashed and burning airplane we (hopefully) can only imagine what was going through their minds. We can only guess what exactly would compel someone to carry his or her luggage onto an escape slide. We’ve all been on stationary and stable airplanes and can attest to the narrow and awkward aisles. Moving from or toward the exit with your luggage is never easy or graceful and usually involves banging into several people. Now picture those aisles filled with unhinged seats, smoke, debris and burning metal. People are literally on top of each other making their way to the exits. Taking up valuable space and time with one’s luggage during an emergency is hard to fathom. But if we give it a moment we can. What if some passengers are not just carrying a change of clothes? What if their journey was one of retrieval or discovery and in their bag are the results? What if there is a document proving or disproving a grievous crime? What if there is an heirloom or token that will give peace to a dying loved one? What if there are medications that can not be replaced in a timely manner? There are explanations that would help us make sense of a seemingly odd decision. Anything we can come up with is more pleasant than the thought of putting other lives in jeopardy for the sake of an iPad or change of underwear. It does not hurt to be generous in our imaginings as these fleeing people most surely were in a state of shock. But even the most imaginative or even compassionate of us might be challenged by the sight of two boxes of duty-free alcohol on the tarmac. What kind of impulse would drive someone to rescue their booze? It couldn’t have been unconscious; two boxes of liquor are very heavy. Even someone not terribly concerned with the well being of his/her fellow man would sense the danger to themselves. Making one’s way through a jungle gym of seats and debris with an unwieldy, heavy flammable box filled with glass can’t feel even remotely self-preserving. We could chalk it up to shock but that not one stopped him/her weakens that argument. Flight attendants cannot be everywhere policing everyone, but no other passenger stopped the human saloon? Did this person actually jump onto the slide with the boxes on his/her lap or did he/she send them down on their own? This is where my imagination sputters a bit.

We’ve all done things of which we’re not particularly proud and we all respond in our own way in moments of crisis. There are just as many people who are “good” in an emergency as there are those who falter. There are also just as many people who see the world (and humanity) as bigger than themselves. It stands to reason that the liquor courier was decidedly not in the “the problem of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” camp. But I think it’s safe to say that he/she was surrounded by at least some people whose impulse was to consider those around them. I’ve no doubt that some passengers and crew attempted to disarm him/her. I refuse to think otherwise. I also believe that most of us will remember this tale and will conjure it in moments of split-decisions. Outside of disaster and emergency it is still a useful fable. We all face decisions (big and small) every single day; most of them affect no one but ourselves. But when we are faced with decision that could affect others; at work, at home, in the world; it’s best to err on the side of generosity and compassion and to leave the box of booze.

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An Overdue Thanks

I have kept (relatively) quiet about something for ten years.  I have struggled with how to have a public discourse about anything in and around the subject of the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Very rightfully, Americans feel enormous ownership of their feelings about the events of the day and the aftermath.  Through luck and happenstance, I have no more entitlement of opinion and/or feeling about the subject, than anyone whose life was not shattered.  I acknowledge this with all due respect and reverence.

It is my hope, that on the heels of an anniversary ending in a “0” when the media has whirled itself into a commemorative frenzy, it might be time to gently offer up a thought that has clung to my psyche for a decade.

I would like to publicly commend and herald the air traffic controllers of the world.  I could not be more serious.  During those first moments, and even hours, the air traffic controllers safely directed every single commercial flight to a safe landing.  This unprecedented maneuver is almost too much to comprehend.  Air traffic is not something most of us really think about.  Save for an occasional horrific mishap or the rare film (Pushing Tin was a good movie) air traffic is not a high profile profession.  I’m guessing the controllers are okay with this.  Engaging in this very high pressure, isolating work, one probably doesn’t leave much time or energy to care about public opinion.

No doubt, part of why we never heard (much) about the drama and heroism inside the control towers is the lack of visual imagery.  I mean how many stories get told these days without compelling video?

If I could please take this moment to thank the men and women who did a job, most of us could never do, under intense time pressure and without a single incident.  I pay my respects without for a moment, taking anything away from everyone else who sacrificed and saved.

 
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Posted by on September 8, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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