Two weeks ago a horrific truck crash claimed the lives of 24 people in an instant. The crash, in Pinetown just outside Durban had all South Africans decrying the horrible death statistics on our roads. This past Monday an army reservist shot and killed 12 people in a mass shooting in a Washington Navy yard. Two incidents, two weeks apart in two totally different countries. Do you know what struck me the most about these, their similarities. Ok, so the truck was not driven by a man with mental issues like it has been alleged about the Washington Navy Yard shooter, but I want to suggest to you that the reaction they elicited from citizens in both countries are exactly the same. “Oh, another one, I feel so sorry for the families of the victims. Yes, they should change the laws, I mean, it’s crazy what’s going on”.
And then, the usual focus on the victims, what they did, how many kids they had. A mother in South Africa wished she’d never sent her daughter to town that day. A neighbour to one one of the shooting victims said “this is a tragedy for so many reasons”. I say give it another week or two, it’ll all blow over, and things will be back to “normal”, until another crash or mass shooting occurs. I could not help but agree with the assertion that mass shootings have worked themselves into the culture of the United States. Similarly, truck crashes, bus crashes and minibus taxi crashes are now a part of the South African culture. We know the rituals we follow when these happen. Even President Barack Obama agrees. He had this to say about the mass shooting.
“I do get concerned that this becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings. Everybody expresses understandable horror. We all embrace the families and obviously our thoughts and prayers are with those families right now – as they’re absorbing this incredible loss.
“And yet we’re not willing to take some basic actions that we know would make a difference.” Substitute the words “mass shootings” in his statement with “car accidents” and you will get a typical statement from our Minister of Transport, whoever happens to wear the mantle at the time.
Seeing as these sort of incidents are now part of the cultures of both these countries allow me to take it a step further. Here’s what I think South Africa’s tourist brochure should include: “Welcome to sunny South Africa, alive with possibilities, the land of Nelson Mandela a.k.a The Miracle Rainbow Nation. We pride ourselves with our potpourri of cultures, our Unity through Diversity, and Oh, by the way, it’s December, our roads need to meet their target of 1500 deaths this month, it happens every year like clockwork!”
How about this one for the USA: “Welcome to the United States of America, the land of the Brave and Free, the land of dreams. Our constitution and rule of law are unmatched in the industrialized world. But wait for this, every couple of months we have a mass shooting! It’s been a couple of months since the last one but anytime now a ‘crazy’, PTSD-tormented, sometimes racist, anti-Semitic, bullied gunman will kill 12 or more people! Anytime now!”.
The rituals go something like this, mass shooting/bus crash occurs: Everyone screams about changing the laws, enforcing current laws, gun laws and traffic laws. And you and I, will look at ourselves and think “I drive safely, I obey all the rules, in fact I grew up around guns and have never had the urge to discharge it in a public place, let alone shoot unarmed people, nobody I know would drive like those maniacs on the road”. Listen, it’s not about you. It’s about that kid in Grade 1 who may be shot by someone we don’t want to acknowledge are own society created. Or that poor girl whose mother sent to town and never came back because our culture of bad driving took her away.
I feel you, you were shocked and disgusted by the latest incident but what can you do? I’m certain you’ve heard the story about the frog being boiled to death in an open pot, the frog doesn’t jump out because it acclimatises to the rising water temperature. Until it dies. Or you’ve seen the fly repeatedly banging itself against a clean window pane, because it doesn’t realise it’s not going anywhere. That’s what happened to our societies. We are now used to these mass deaths. We issue the same statements after each incident, we are horrified, we want to change laws but obviously it’s not working. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”, who said that again. Oh Yes, that genius of a man called Albert Einstein. He must have had us in mind when he said that.
So, why is it so difficult for governments to take decisive action over something as terminal as a massacre or a truck crash?
Let’s do something DIFFERENT. Our current reactions to the incidents are not working. Imagine this. An incident like the Pinetown truck crash happens. Our president calls an emergency meeting,on the agenda, only one item: the crash. His most intelligent and trusted advisors are there. He’s also called the chairperson of the Pinetown Residents Association, they bring along their road accident reconstruction experts and copies of their online petition. The Minister of higher education has brought along a thesis by a Doctorate student at The University of The Witwatersrand on Road Deaths in South Africa: The solutions”. The meeting lasts 4 hours. At the press conference the President announces that the stretch of road has now been declared a truck-free zone as the residents have been requesting for the past 10 years. All heavy-duty truck and bus drivers under the age of 30 to be retested. All bus drivers who have ever caused fatal accidents to be retested. It sounds crazy I know, but it’s different!
We’d be shocked! Is that our President? We would also request whatever he’d had that morning for breakfast, but most importantly, for once, he would have broken away from the culture represented by this statement: “It’s time we begin to thoroughly assess and fully comprehend the cost of crashes to our economy”, that’s Dipuo Peters for you, our current Minister of transport. Really, 100 000 deaths later(since 1994) and it’s only now that “it’s time”. Ag Nee!
Across the Atlantic, President Obama would have called a similar emergency meeting. News reports coming out of the White house are going something like “Rumour has it that he’s never been as furious as he was on Monday following the massacre. He called the head of Departmnet of Psychiatry/Psychology at Harvard to the meeting. He wanted to understand why so many mental issues are going undetected in the general population, what can be done on a mass scale to correct such high levels of anger in the nation. Thorough psychological examinations would now be part of acquiring a gun licence, not only semi-automatics but all guns. The right to self-protection would now be superseded by the right of others to life. He even enlisted the help of Hollywood director Michael Moore, wanting to understand why his peers gave him an Oscar for his documentary, Bowling for Columbine, about the 1999 Coumbine High School shooting. At the press conference, he’s expected to announce brave and drastic new measures that will change the culture of owning guns throughout the country”.
I hear you saying “Dream On”. John Lennon answered you a long time ago, he said “you might say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. Imagine.
I despair at the thought that none of the scenarios I’ve painted above will play themselves out at either the White House or the Union Buildings in Pretoria anytime soon. After all, our presidents have got countries to run(yeah right!). But another mass shooting will happen, another tragic bus/truck accident is coming. I would rather my leaders work to change things than run governments, if you know what I mean. Even with the suggestions I’ve made, change would take a while, but I’m certain the culture of being used to mass death would be changed. Let’s keep on agitating for change, for leaders who will think out of the box.