Two stories from this morning’s headlines:
Man Suing Over Injury From Giant Pine Cone in San Francisco
Missile Brought Down Malaysia Airlines Plane in Ukraine, Investigators Conclude
Our hearts should truly go out to the U.S. Navy veteran who had the misfortune of relaxing in a national park when a 16-pound pine cone fell on his head. The story would be comical were it not so tragic. After serving their country, our servicemen deserve respect and appreciation, not traumatic brain injury from freak accidents.
But that’s just the point. This was an accident, and accidents happen.
I suppose lawyers will wrangle over whether the Park Service was negligent for not posting warning signs and fencing off the area, or for planting a non-native species that might threaten unsuspecting visitors. I suppose one could also make the case that the Park Service should assume a measure of responsibility by covering the victim’s medical expenses.
But what does it say about us when our natural impulse is to litigate every mishap, to turn to the courts, assign blame, and make others pay? Life is full of scrapes and bruises, and sometimes more painful twists of fate. How we deal with the apparent randomness of our world comes down to personal philosophy and theology, but it isn’t always someone else’s fault.
In truth, it reflects a kind of collective arrogance, resulting from the delusion that we are in total control of our lives and our world, and that anything bad that happens to us must have been inflicted in some kind of criminal act. Why fate smiles on some and torments others is a question we can’t expect to answer in this world. But there isn’t always a man behind the curtain whom we can haul into court to demand restitution.
Even worse, when we attribute wicked intent to every whim of fortune, we lose some of our contempt for true acts of evil. The recent finding that it was a Russian-built Buk missile that killed 298 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last year confirms what everyone expected. There is true evil in the world, and we dare not conflate incidental suffering with that perpetrated by authentic villains.
We live in a world full of contradictions. When bad things happen to good people, we owe them our comfort and sympathy. When bad people spread suffering among the innocent, we are duty bound to hunt them down and exact justice.
But we should never confuse the two.