Twice in the last week, I have been erroneously thanked for my patience. First, I waited for a family of five to slowly figure out a computer check-in kiosk, which was the only one for that venue, while I became late for my appointment. Then an expensive custom item was made incorrectly for the third time. In both instances, I was in fact quite impatient, but I had no good alternative. I could have yelled at the Luddite family, but it would not have made them work faster; I could have complained to the staffperson sitting at the registration desk, but they could not conjure a second kiosk; the lady with the custom goods is just a broker I find personally annoying, but not the person doing the faulty work.
We all want what we want when we want it.
The news about disasters at live events is no different. This year alone, there has been extensive coverage of a deadly crowd crush after a religious celebration in Israel, the Euro 2020 crowd aggression in London, the Astroworld tragedy in Houston, and most recently the Waukesha, Wisconsin parade disaster. In each instance, I have prior experience with issues that appear similar. I have worked on cases involving ingress and egress, crowd crushes at music events, and even a couple of parade cases. Theoretically, my expertise regarding safety at events should make me comfortable offering snap judgments based on patterns I recognize. I should be able to feed the beast.
Where others might find obvious explanations, I see nuances that lead in many potential directions. I remind people that ‘correlation is not causation.’ When I get going, my legal training causes me to spout Latin terms like the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. I lack pithy soundbites because event production is complex, with lots of stakeholders, decisions, and causal influences, no one of which is usually dispositive. When reporters ask after every disaster, ‘Is this sort of thing common?’ I ask them back, ‘If it were common, wouldn’t we have spoken to each other before today?’ Then I wait.
When my question sinks in, the conversation generally gets slower, but deeper. It’s interesting to see the light bulb above someone’s head when they realize that a story about pure good and pure evil is simplistic to the point of irresponsibility.
I admire certainty. I wish I had more of it. Long before Ronald Reagan popularized the old Russian expression “trust, but verify,” lawyers answered most questions with “It depends….”
What it depends on, generally, is facts. In the immediate aftermath of any situation, only the barest outline of what happened is truly known. It is far easier to trumpet the number of dead or injured than to methodically work through the causes that contributed to each one. It is faster to make blanket assertions based on pre-existing views than to figure out what distinguishes the great majority of events that occur without incident from the few where things go horribly wrong. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is an excellent first question even after Passover.
Investigation takes time. Well-intentioned government officials may establish a commission of inquiry, independent review of events, or task force with the goal of preventing future similar incidents. The value of any such effort will depend on the questions they ask, and the challenges they choose to face as they seek answers. In the United States, a thorough investigation into any incident may require the tools that exist only in litigation, including the power to compel witness testimony and document production.
Litigation is slow. Early in my career, my parents used to ask how long a particular case would last. I would always answer, “No matter how long you think it could possibly take, it will take longer.” Now they don’t ask anymore. But as grindingly slow as the legal system can be, the process is important. Otherwise, the court of public opinion (thanks, social media) could simply apportion fault to parties in order of name recognition. That would be satisfyingly fast, but rather too blunt an instrument for the cause of justice.
To bring home my point about the perils of excessive certainty, I turn to the timeless words of Veruca Salt. In her show-stopping number, “I Want It Now,” she demands an impressive number of things she cannot immediately have, including an Oompa Loompa, a bean feast, and eggs from a golden goose. When reality strikes her down, Veruca departs Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory down a garbage chute.
No one should be patient when it comes to demanding explanations for tragedies. But valuable things – like truth, or allocation of fault – are worth some time and effort.