Worse than 9/11

It is now my considered opinion that the current disaster in New Orleans is worse than the terrorist attacks of 9/11... much worse. Consider the following:

  • On 9/11, thousands of Americans were killed by Terrorists.
  • In New Orleans, thousands of Americans were killed by the Hurricane (I am hoping that I will be proved wrong in this assertion)
  • On 9/11, two large office buildings were destroyed.
  • In New Orleans, at least 50% of all the buildings have been destroyed (conservative guestimate on my part)
  • On 9/11, the majority of New Yorkers were able to sleep at home that night and go to work the following day.
  • Hundreds of thousands of refugees from New Orleans are sleeping in cars, tents and shelters. Many of them have lost their homes. None of these people are likely to have employment for months.
  • The clean-up in New York took months, but was confined to a small area.
  • The clean-up in New Orleans will take months as well, but at least 50% of the city will have to be rebuilt from the ground up.
  • While another terrorist attack identical to 9/11 is possible, it is probably very unlikely to occur in New York again.
  • There is always the possibility of another hurricane to devestate the area. Who knows? New Orleans may be damaged again by a hurricane within the next month.
The only difference in favour of 9/11 is that the terrorist attacks made stunning television, and thus had a massive impact on us all. All we see in New Orleans are wet people and submerged buildings. But that's just image.

From the Department of Wha's Happnin?

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.


Anonymous said...

In what I am about to say I am not really "having a go" at you. What I think you have done is something that most us (myself included) do. I also mean no disrespect to the people who have suffered in the terrible events in New Orleans or in New York.

You made a statement to the effect that X was worse than Y. Such a statement implies a number of things. First, it obviously implies that the person making the statement believes there is such a thing as "bad". I'm with you on that one -- I do believe in good and bad! The second thing your statement implies is that we can meaningfully say that X and Y were to some degree good or bad. I'm with you on that point. A third implication is that we can compare goodness or badness in general. I'm also with you there. The fourth implication is that we can compare goodness/ badness in a particular case -- in your statement comparing the events of 9/11 and the hurricane in New Orleans. This is where it starts to get tricky.

Is it meaningful to compare the badness of "the disaster in New Orleans" with the badness of "the terrorist attacks of 9/11"?

Obviously in saying that the disaster in New Orleans was bad we take a number of things into account: loss of life, the effect of the disaster on the lives of survivors, material damage, the costs and efforts involved in repair, and the costs and efforts involved in prevention of other similar disasters come to my mind. No doubt there are others.

Most if not all of these factors will also make an appearance in our assessment of the badness of the events of 9/11. But we can arguably add a few more in the case of 9/11. 9/11 was directly caused by the moral choices of human beings; it also had significant geopolitical ramifications.

Taking the first of these two additional factors, one thing that makes the badness of the two events difficult to compare was that the events in New Orleans were a "natutal" disaster while the events in New York were a "man-made" disaster.

If we were comparing likes (such as loss of human life, material damage, effect on lives of the survivors, the costs of repair and maintenance) then it might be possible (and I deliberately say 'might' as there are difficulties with this position) to come to a "bottom line" outcome of which of the two disasters was worse.

But we are not just comparing likes. Comparing likes is the easy bit. Adding them up is the hard bit.

It's easy and uncontroversial to say that more people died in one disaster than another, or that more people were left homeless in one disaster than another or that the repairs cost more in one case than in another.

But in order to be able to "add up" all the various factors you need to assign relative weights to all the various factors of badness. That is not a simple task. We are going to have to make a decision not only on whether the cost of repairs in case A was more expensive in case B, but also whether the cost of repairs is to figure more highly in our overall assessment than another factor (such as the cost of prevention or the effect on the lives of survivors).

But assigning a relative weight goes beyond merely giving the factors an ordinal ranking. Simply listing all the factors in order of importance will not suffice. You can't just say that A is more important than B is than C is than D etc. You also have to say *how much* more important A is than B is than C is than D etc. *How much* more important is loss of life than the cost of prevention?

But the task gets even trickier. Not only to we have to compare likes and then assign a relative weight to them, but we then have to take into account factors of badness that are present in one and not in the other and give them a relative weight.

Now I guess you might have considered a number of factors and just come to an "intuitive" conclusion that the disaster in New Orleans was worse than the disaster in New York. This is something that we all do. There is a place for intuition and generalisation. But if you make such a statement that the disaster in New Orleans was worse than the disaster in New York you will need to be able to defend it. And intuition will only get you so far.

I suspect you either failed to consider the geopolitical ramifications of the 9/11 attack and the moral moral culpability of the perpetrators or that you considered these factors relatively unimportant in coming to an overall conclusion that the hurricane in New Orleans was worse than the 9/11 attacks in New York. Now that's a a defensible position but you would have to be prepared to argue why you find these factors relatively unimportant.

I must say I prefer to take the easier option and simply refuse to draw a bottom line conclusion. Both were bad and both were bad in different ways. I don't think it's terribly helpful to force a conclusion on the question of which was worse (in an absolute "bottom line" sense).

One thing I disagree strongly with is your assertion that "the only difference in favour of 9/11 is that the terrorist attacks made stunning television". Well yes they did make stunning television. The aftermath of a tornado is not as dramatic as hijacked airliners being deliberately flown into a high rise building full of workers. But is that the "only" difference as you assert?

As already mentioned, surely the fact that the 9/11 attacks were carried out wilfully by human beings against fellow human beings is an important difference. The geopolitical ramifications of 9/11 are also an important difference IMHO. How much weight you assign to that is a matter of debate. But nevertheless I think it should be "part of the mix".

I understand and sympathise with your apparent frustration that the 9/11 attacks are considered worse by many people and the fact that they have drawn too much attention for ignoble reasons. The "telegenecy" of disasters should be the last thing on our minds. The victims of a hurricane are no less deserving of sympathy, prayer, comfort and assistance than the victims of a terrorist attack, a flood, an earthquake, a famine, a train derailment a shooting spree -- or even a death by "natural" causes.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

The only things that I am examining here are the after-effects. This is in terms of people dead, people suffering and lives displaced.

There is no doubt that the 9/11 attacks had the added element of human culpability - the actions of the terrorists. But then, New Orleans also suffered as a result of human culpability - the refusal of successive federal governments to protect the city from Hurricane damage (specifically improving the levees that kep the water out). The fact that one disaster was due to direct action and the other by indirect action, to me, is meaningless.

Moreover the geopolitical results of 9/11 were a result of human choice. 9/11 did not cause America to act in the only way possible. If Al Gore had been president, for example, I doubt that America would have invaded Iraq. To me, they need to be removed from "the mix".

By stating that 9/11 was about "image" I was pointing out the fact that people often associate a particular image with a disaster, and that the stronger and more powerful the image is, the greater the disaster appears to be. For example, when I woke up on September 12 2001 and saw for the first time the images from the World Trade Center, I broke down in tears. With New Orleans, I feel very little emotion at all. But I recognise that my feelings have very little to do with it. Despite not "feeling really sad" about New Orleans, I recognise that it is a massive disaster. I suppose I'm trying to be objective, rather than subjective, in this area.

And of course there is no doubt that many suffered on 9/11. My analysis here in no way diminished that.

Anonymous said...

Of course we can compare tragedies in terms "of badness". In terms of loss, this will amount to be more significant than 9-11.

I'll help you out even further. Using grapaslingo's patented badnessometer, I can rank this in terms of other tragedies of the past 100 years:

1. Holocaust
2. Great Earthquake (Japan, 1923)
3. Rwanda
4. Cambodian Massacres
5. Ukrainian Famine
6. Tsunami 2004
7. Kobe Earthquake
8. Tangshan Earthquake
19. Hurricane katrina
22. 9-11

The badnessometer takes into consideration a number of factors, including modality of the tragedy, human culpability, economic, socioeconomic, and environmental impact, loss of life, price of tea in China, and Mervyn Peake's reputation as a gothic novelist.

Anonymous said...

OSO by way of reply said:
"The only things that I am examining here are the after-effects. This is in terms of people dead, people suffering and lives displaced."

I'm with you there. I too think Hurricane Katrina was/is much worse than 9/11 in that regard.