Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Word 'Miracle' is Also a Cancer

From 'Ask the Pilot' in Salon.

My gripe was with the media -- for its refusal to acknowledge the existence of first officer Skiles, for its "O, the humanity" histrionics, and for its gratuitous use of the words "miracle" and "hero." On the whole, news coverage served to trivialize the event rather than shed useful light on what actually happened. And at a time when the media has become unbearably superficial, is it so wrong to hold it accountable? Perhaps we need more cranks, not fewer.

For what it's worth, although lay readers tended to disagree with me, I also received several letters from airline pilots, unanimously thanking me for the piece. (I have, many times in this column, detailed the challenges of flying planes for a living, from the often lousy pay to the stresses of simulator training. I've done a good job, I think, of presenting this odd profession with respect, dignity and a degree of insight you aren't going to get anywhere else. Call it a conflict of interest, but I have spent thousands of words sticking up for pilots and the business of flying planes.)

To some extent, my complaint was a semantic one. There's little harm in celebrating the unlikely survival of 155 people, and we needn't quibble over the wording. But terms like "hero" and "miracle" shouldn't be thrown around lightly.

A miracle describes an outcome that cannot be rationally explained. Everything that happened on Jan. 15 can be rationally explained. That nobody was killed is due to four factors. They are, in descending order (pardon the pun): luck, professionalism, skill and technology.

A hero, to me, describes a person who accepts a great personal sacrifice, up to and including injury or death, for the benefit of somebody else. I never suggested that pilots were merely "doing their job," as several letter writers accused me of suggesting. It was considerably more than that, and nothing about it was easy. But I didn't see heroics; I saw an outstanding execution of difficult tasks in the throes of a serious
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Andrew said...

Ah but why no mention, in the SF Comical and its ilk, of the flight attendants and other crew (the co-pilot?) and for that matter the flippin passengers? Hats off to the Hero, fersure, but as usual the press got this story all wrong.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Ah it's the great man theory of history, isn't it? It's the meta-narrative.