William Drenttel | Essays

Reading the News & Charting Death

A few weeks ago, Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of U.S. Homeland Security, made the mistake of suggesting that security in the subways (after bombings in London's "Tube") was less of a priority than security in the air. "The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people. When you start to think about priorities, you're going to think about making sure you don't have a catastrophic thing first."

No matter where you live in the world today, this kind of "risk analysis" is at play. The problem, as Marisa Katz so smartly points out in The New Republic, is that such analysis does not grapple with the "potential" of such risks, nor does it factor in the intangibles — in economic terms, in psychological effects or in societal stress. Risk assessment strives to eliminate emotions from its equation, and so "Chertoff's statement about an airplane versus a subway suggests a frightening...lack of imagination."

Establishing priorities based on the numbers is a tricky problem. In post-9/11 America, security funding has grown to enormous proportions: "a whopping $50 billion, roughly equivalent to the gross national product of New Zealand." But, in fact, this money is not allocated based on need or risk, but on a pork-belly equation where 40% of the budget is allocated to all states, irrespective of need. Thus, Pennsylvania receives a paltry $5.50 per capita in federal counterterrorism funding, while Wyoming gets $35.03. (For our international readers, the state of Wyoming has a population of 494,000 while Pennsylvania's tops 12 million.) Michael Chertoff, to his credit, has begun to question some of these legislative foibles. The problem is that to change this equation requires a new system — a new way of articulating the issues and the budget allocations.

Which leads us back to risk assessment.

How are we to understand, much less evaluate these needs when all we have are the numbers? While charts can clarify certain kinds of data, they are inevitably doomed to failure with regard to representing the greater complexities of human loss.

Edward Tufte has written about how risk data could have better informed decisions to prevent the Challenger space-shuttle disaster in 1986. Data presented via fax the evening before the disaster indicated virtually no risk. The same data presented another way would have suggested that the O-rings were likely to freeze. On that fateful day, the worst risk occurred — taking with it the lives of seven astronauts. But there were other outcomes as well: angst and sleepless nights for the surviving families; re-thinking the future of the Shuttle program within NASA; and the waning of a nation's confidence in science.

Many of us still remember the loss of those seven astronauts as seen again and again on television. Over time, the names of seven dead astronauts will recede into cultural histories of the American Space Program, absorbed by technical chronologies of the history of NASA. Ultimately, the names themselves will be forgotten. We do not remember the names of the workers killed building the Golden Gate Bridge (11), nor the names of the workers killed building the Hoover Dam (112). Their memory has become at once collective and symbolic, living on as a testament to the difficulty and heroism of these modern feats of engineering.

But are numbers alone what best characterize the value, or communicate the impact, or represent the emotional loss of such tragedy? The relative number of deaths may be easy to chart, yet the authoritative act of charting it suggests — what, exactly? Are deaths from the Shuttle disaster more meaningful than fatalities at the Hoover Dam?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that there could be eleven to forty-four fewer deaths each year in America given stronger roofs on Sport-Utility Vehicles (SUVs) — and it would only cost auto makers $90 million per year, or $6.00 per vehicle. Meanwhile, there are 10,500 rollover deaths each year in automobile accidents, almost a third of the total. But drivers of SUVs "are especially vulnerable to fatal rollovers. Rollover accidents account for only 3% of all U.S. motor-vehicle accidents, but they cause nearly a third of all vehicle-occupant fatalities. Thus, an SUV occupant is 3 times as likely to die as a result of a rollover than an occupant of a passenger car."

The point here is not only that 44 people might have died because their roofs were weak, but that the automobile industry is continuing to manufacture cars that are unsafe. These deaths are powerful because they are so unnecessary. Other facts in this week's news are no better: the 98,000 killed this year in America because of medical mistakes during health care? Or the 400,000 dead in Darfur? It would be obscene to chart these deaths against the dead of 9/11 or M-11. Can you map the presence of genocide against social policy, or against acts of terrorism? Would it matter if you could?

In Ian McEwan's new novel, Saturday, the obsession is not that terrorism can happen — but that it will happen. When the very knowledge of this fact is consumed into our psyche — whether as low-grade, back-of-mind awareness, or as actual hard-edged fear — it has become an integral part of our daily lives. Here, the impact of the news lies in its very persistence, its sheer inevitability. In this view, the potential for terrorism is not made more meaningful by a chart. By its very nature, the representation of information remains an impartial science, an objective act, an art of dispassionate didacticism. And that's precisely the problem.

Posted in: Ideas, Journalism, Politics + Policy

Comments [2]

The sniper attacks by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo are a case in point of the futility of basing terror's impact upon the number of people killed. Muhammad and Malvo did not kill as many people as would be killed by a large bomb in a crowded subway train, but they succeeded in terrorizing a large geographical region of the US for several weeks.

The impact of terror is caused by how people react to the "perceived potential" for being a victim. Muhammad's and Malvo's region of terror was created by the perception that anyone with in a certain region might be the next vistim.

This perception caused people to alter their patterns of conduct which in turn had impacts on the financial and political economy of the nation during those weeks.
J. H. Shewmaker

You should add Hiroshima to that graph.

Jobs | November 14