Tuesday night I went through a crash course in what really matters, in humanity, in mortality. I was watching the news reports about the Amtrak derailment, and amid my secondhand anguish for injured strangers I thanked Heaven, literally thanked him out loud, for the fact that my immigration hearing in Baltimore had been canceled. Had it not been, I might have been sitting in one of those mangled cars.
But relief quickly and seamlessly turned into fear, as I realized a person I hold deep and dearly in my heart travels regularly on that route, commuting between her homes in Philly and New York. It was midnight, but I didn't care. I called her phone and barely keeping my voice steady I disguised a plea as a simple inquiry: "Are you OK?"
She was. Seven long hours later she called me back, apologized for having turned her ringer off that night and assured me she was safe at home, in New York.
It was a happy ending. And yet the panic I felt at the moment I called was so visceral and potent that I can still recall it as I write these words, many hours later. I'm sure anyone who has been in that similar situation, ignorant of the outcome but hoping for the best, can relate. Mothers of deployed soldiers, wives of police officers, fellow comrades of firefighters on other ladders all of them become aware of the tensile thin thread that binds us to our lived ones and a normal life.
So Tuesday-into-Wednesday reinforced my appreciation for the fragility of relationships and the miracle of being spared tragedy, when you stand in no better shoes and are equally deserving of suffering as the afflicted ones.
And that's why what happened afterward saddened and angered but didn't surprise me. Bodies were still being transported to hospitals; sirens were still wailing and lights still flashing; a mayor was rising far above the low expectations he'd been saddled with and became truly heroic in the last stage of his administration; first responders acted like the heroes they'd always been.
And in those same moments of crisis and chaos, the media types started spinning their looms to knit stories that would achieve the ratings they so dearly craved. Political and partisan considerations began to creep into the pens and voices of journalists and pundits, and suddenly it became all about how the Republicans were opposed to funding infrastructure repairs because they hated the president.
At first, I attributed my impression that the focus was being lost to the fact that I hadn't gotten much sleep and was still rattled by the tragedy. I really didn't want to believe that a tragedy could be so quickly politicized after the recent debacle in Baltimore. Surely we learned our lesson, I thought.
Naivete, thy name is Christine.
The spin on this tragedy was more subtle than the one in Baltimore, but it was clearly there. The fingers, instead of being pointed directly in the face of police officers and "white society" were delicately gesturing in the direction of conservatives who would supposedly sacrifice the safety of these poor passengers to their unwillingness to cooperate with the president.
It's depressing to see how quickly the thought monitors jump into action at the first sign of an opportunity. You would think that these political opportunists would wait until the smell of blood had dissipated before coming out with their suggestions that it was all the fault of the GOP.
In fact, they would have looked less ridiculous had they waited, since we now know the train was traveling at 106 mph. Hard to argue that "infrastructure" was at fault, but why let facts get in the way of a good political talking point?
On the other hand, they're no better than my conservative friends who in the wake of 9/11 found it opportune to blame Bill Clinton for ignoring acts of terror like the bombing of the Cole and laying the responsibility for the World Trade Center tragedy at his feet, even though President Bush had been in office a full nine months by that point.
Still, liberals seem more motivated to blame conservatives for the evils of the world, in part because they suffer from a paranoia that transforms opposition to the White House agenda into personal hatred for Obama.
But there is enough blame to go around.
Truly, we are creatures of habit. The moment something catastrophic happens, we look for a simple answer, easy to cram into sound bites and man-on-the-street interviews. In those moments between apprehension for my friend's welfare and certainty that she was safe, I felt my humanity and helplessness quite keenly. I didn't wonder if conservatives bleed more profusely than liberals, or if the children that were being thrown about in the mangled train cars went to public or parochial schools. It didn't matter.
But that sense of community doesn't last very long in an atmosphere charged with partisan angling, where being on this side or that is what matters more than "being" human.
The only pure people in this whole affair are those who rushed around, in darkness, to save lives.
If only there were more of them.Christine M. Flowers
Philadelphia Daily News