July 22, 1996
by James Fallows
About two hundred and thirty people died in traffic accidents in the U.S. this past weekend. Two hundred and thirty will die between now and this afternoon from disorders related to smoking. We know these things but barely notice them, unless we're familiar with the victims; yet most of us are genuinely shaken when 230 people we've never met die in an airplane disaster.
Much of the reason, of course, is the physical horror of what has occurred. Most of the time in airplanes we grumble about the cramped seats and jaded attendants and plasticized food. It is somehow indecent to think that people who, seconds earlier, found such imperfections worth fretting about were, seconds later, confronting elemental forces of explosion and fire and acceleration through thousands of feet of empty air, ending, sometimes, hundreds of fathoms into the sea. There has always been exceptional power and fascination in the story of groups struck by unforeseen tragedy -- the theme that connects the destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, to the sinking of the Titanic, to the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I still remember hearing as a child, more than thirty years ago, about a plane crash that killed an entire college football team. More than thirty years from now I suspect that many people will remember hearing about the high school French club from Pennsylvania.
In addition to all of this, airplane disasters rupture the illusion of control and rationality most of us need to live. We know rationally that planes are safe, so we get on them -- just as we know, rationally, that if we drive carefully we'll probably avoid danger on the road, and that if we live sensibly our children will probably survive to adulthood and we will probably survive to see them there, and that if our end is near we'll probably have some warning -- old age, disease, even an intuition -- not just a flash and boom. On these rational expectations we build our plans for today and for a tomorrow we assume will come. When the rules are broken -- when bystanders are hit by bullets, when teenagers are killed by drunks, when hundreds of lives end in an instant in the sky for reasons of which the victims were in every sense innocent -- any faith in plans or control seems vain.
The actual wall of an airplane -- all that separates the passenger from the sky -- is not the thick, insulated padding you see around each window but a thin metal eggshell, visible in its slightness only as you pass through the door into the plane. A crash removes the padding from life in general, and reminds us how thin is the wall between us and the void.