Hey, It’s Not the End of the World

One of the temptations of our disposable and wildly narcissistic modern culture is to presume that whatever is happening now must be more important than anything that has happened previously—not only more important because it’s happening to us, but also objectively more important.


The 1920 Wall Street Bombing

This happens all the time in a sports context when athletic endeavors filter through the hyperbolic prism of modern media.  A great game becomes the greatest game. A bad error becomes the worst error.  The best basketball player of the day is immediately compared to Michael Jordan (until the new new best player of the day comes along).

As I’ve said before, nothing can be a “3” or a “7.”  Everything is a zero or a ten.  Otherwise, why bother?

Likewise, a recurring theme in contemporary political and news-related discussion is how little people actually know about the basic history of our nation—even among the educated segments of our citizenry.

Perhaps that’s not a fair way to frame the issue.  It’s not so much that most people lack fundamental knowledge.  That’s imprecise.  I believe a majority of informed people have a general understanding of the three branches of government, a superficial familiarity with the major events of the last three centuries, and some awareness of current affairs.

It might be better to say that people have forgotten (or are ignorant of) other facts from history that provide useful context to these modern-day discussions.[1]  Such moments from our past are important, because they help put whatever is happening presently into proper perspective.  They can, for example, reassuringly point out that the unsettling images around us aren’t unprecedented—we just haven’t seen them before, or we don’t remember them.  It isn’t that bad things aren’t happening now—they are—but the seductive urge (fostered by our media) is to begin to believe that things have never been this bad, or, even more pointedly, that we’re inching toward apocalypse.

That’s why, from a certain perspective, it helps to know about such terrible events as the bombing of Wall Street on September 16, 1920.

The bombing happened around noon, probably in an effort to catch the mid-day lunch crowd.  The method of delivery is a little shocking by today’s standards: A horse-drawn wagon carrying a hundred pounds of dynamite.  This apparatus exploded in front of J. P. Morgan’s Wall Street headquarters.

To make matters worse, the explosive package included a quarter-ton of cast-iron fragments, which made the detonation even more dangerous.  How dangerous?  Thirty-eight people died as a result of the blast, most of them nearly instantly.  An additional 143 people suffered injuries from the explosion.  This was also during an era when, unlike today, “ringing in the ears” alone wasn’t considered an “injury.”  Perhaps most amazingly, the bombing did $2,000,000 worth of damage.  That’s in 1920 dollars.  Adjusted for inflation, the figure would be well over ten times that amount today.

These divots give one an idea of the destructive power of the shrapnel bomb.

These divots give one an idea of the destructive power of the shrapnel bomb.

The shrapnel was so destructive that it tore holes in nearby walls.  Many of these divots are still there.  Their obvious impact speaks to the indiscriminate danger created by the bomb.

Authorities strongly suspected that radical anti-capitalists (communists, anarchists, etc) planned and executed the terrorist act.  However, the Justice Department was never able to solve the case.

That’s right: No one was ever executed, convicted, or even charged with the crime.

Then, tonight, a devastating explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas (not to be confused with West Texas) injured hundreds of people and killed dozens.  By any measure, this is a horrible event that will devastate that community for years to come.  But there was also a similar explosion in Texas City in 1947 that was even more destructive, with nearly 600 deaths and thousands upon thousands of injuries.

NYTimesWestTexasSimilarly, the Boston Marathon attack was, of course, troubling and tragic.  But the Wall Street Bombing was significantly more impactful in terms of loss of life.[2]

I’m not saying that the harrowing events of this week should be minimized or forgotten.  I’m merely saying that it’s so easy—and understandable—to feel utter despair over the belief that our psyches will continue to be crushed by “unprecedented,” heartbreaking events that will strike without warning.

It helps, in a way, to remember that there’s very little new under the sun.  For better or worse, humans can be pretty terrible, and awful accidents can happen.


Are we really getting worse? The data suggests otherwise.

It’s just that there are more people now (and, therefore, more terrible people) and the knowledge and grim details of any event akin to those just mentioned will be instantly available to every person who has an internet connection.[3]

I do understand that this is a back-handed way of reassuring ourselves.  “Hey, I thought it was worse now, but, it turns out it was always bad.”  Try not to look at it that way.  Just remember that we live in a complicated world with a heaping portion of evil and misery, but also a lot of good and beauty.

Put another way, our fellow humans probably aren’t the best humans who have ever lived.

But maybe they’re not the worst humans who have ever lived, either.

And maybe the world isn’t ending just yet.


[1] One example that I find myself citing frequently is the fact that our Constitution was originally intended to apply to all citizens only where explicitly stated as such.  The Constitution was a check on the powers of the federal government.  Anything not forbidden by the Constitution could be enacted by the federal government, and, more to the point, even those things that our Constitution forbid the U. S. government from doing could still be done by the states.  This comes up all the time in different contexts.  To name two: 1. Talking about the Affordable Care Act and explaining to Tea Party folks that some government absolutely has the power to make you purchase something, and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the issue in those cases was whether the federal government had this power.  2. Correcting the notion that the Establishment Clause was a total prohibition on government being involved in religion, when, again, it was originally a way to keep the U. S. government from establishing a state religion.  In fact, many states had official state religions for decades after the ratification of the Constitution.  I would generously estimate that less than ten percent of the population is aware of that fact.
[2] Another example is this: The deadliest school attack in the history of the United States took place in 1927 in Bath, Michigan.  Thirty-eight elementary school children (plus six teachers) were killed in a series of dynamite blasts at the school.
[3] To use a very basic analogy, what if people who saw the Kevin Ware injury had never heard of compound fractures?  It was a grisly sight as it was, but imagine if the person watching wasn’t even aware that such injuries exist.  At that point, the injury goes from “shocking” to “debilitating” for the viewer.
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