Boy did I get into trouble the other day.
At the bar with some friends, someone said something about how tragic was some event or other, based partly on the number of children who died in it.
And I said, "What makes it so much more tragic that kids were killed? Is there something the matter with grown-ups?"
(Thanks, second margarita!)
And off we went.
I know the road. I've been down it many times before.
And I think I know the road better now, having a kid myself, than I knew it as a childless intellectual.
The road was built by parents like me, who, whenever they hear about a child dying, immediately think of their own child dying, and begin to shudder and wail and make other panicky sounds. (For the blissfully childless, let me explain that when you have a child, you find yourself perversely imagining accidentally dropping your child from your shoulders onto the sidewalk or into the Chicago River and you can even bring yourself to cry out in horror, in public.)
I see some hospital documentary with a kid in trouble in an emergency room, I nearly crush the remote switching the channel.
Universal parental terror of our child's death is why we have 500 Notting Hills for every one Lorenzo's Oil.
So I believe I understand the source of the news convention: 457 people killed; 56 of them were children. And I respect the emotion of it. But I don't think it holds any intellectual water.
I believe kids come to the world fresh and bring a funny new perspective, which is why I'm always quoting Scout. (The other day she said she believes she's beautiful on the inside. "A little bloody, though.")
And of course older people have done more bad things in life. ("Old people are quieter because old people have more to be quiet about," my old dad always used to say.)
But by the same token, neither has a three-year-old done a thousandth as many beautiful things than a solid 50-year-old. Nor, for that matter, has a child barely prevented him- or herself from doing a fraction as many terrible things.
So no, I don't believe kids are "better" than grown-ups, and if you do, then you must wish a young death on every child—to prevent the inevitable rotting.
The other argument that the death of a child is more tragic than the death of an adult is that the more "potential" is wasted when a child dies. If this were really our reason, then we wouldn't make the senselessly rough delineation between "children" and "adults" in the plane crash (so a 17-year-old is a precious child and an 18-year-old is a disposable grown-up?).
No, if we were coldly calculating human potential, we'd say, "The bomb went off between a hip cafe and a community grocery store, and the average age of victims was a tragically low 31.9."
But that would be silly, of course.
The last and best line of defense of the indefensible argument that a child's death is more tragic is that grown-ups, because they've been participants in society, are more complicit in whatever bad shit happens—car crashes, wars, bridge collapses—than children, who after all were just born here.
But that means you actually place some tiny percentage of the blame on the administrative assistant who was killed at his desk thanks to Timothy McVeigh's odd notions about patriotism.
It's not that kids aren't innocents (although if you have one, you know those blond curls hide larcenous hearts set on candy and Chuck E. Cheese).
It's that adults, in most cases of accidental mass death, are as much innocents as the kids are. And their deaths are every bit as terrible, and depending on the number and depth and nature of their relationships in the world, arguably even more so.
I guess I'm bracing for a fight on this—because I sure got one in the bar the other day.
I also realize that this issue has nothing to do with communication.
Except, communication works better in an environment of intellectual honesty than one of instinctual terror.