Our bargain

Jul 11, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

Even in the face of disaster, we've come too far to turn away from industrialized life

It has been a bad week for mechanized disasters. Given the lifestyle that modern man has come to expect from the developed world, there will be more weeks like this.

Each of the calamities had its special, memorable horrors. In San Francisco, a jumbo jetliner tried to land at the big international airport at an angle too low and a speed too slow. The plane came to a skidding, fiery crash. One of the fatalities was a small child struck and killed by an emergency vehicle racing to the terrifying scene.

In Alaska, a family that had assembled for a longed-for summer vacation died when their small airplane crashed and burned.

And in a small town in Canada, similar in size to our Fremont County communities, a train loaded with car after car of explosives -- inexplicably released down the track without anyone at the controls -- wrecked and exploded. Searchers are still digging bodies from the rubble, but they know not everyone killed will be found. Such was the nature of the ghastly inferno that is believed to have killed at least 50 people, some sleeping calmly in their beds.

In a German folk legend, the character Faust, the creation of writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was a man who sought ever more advanced knowledge and achievement, never quite satisfied with his progress. Eventually he makes the so-called "deal with the devil" to get what he believes he wants.

In modern North America, we all make a Faustian bargain of sorts when we decide to travel hundreds of miles an hour through the air in a flying tube, or agree to transport highly flammable fuel along the countryside through cities on steel rails under a system that occasionally fails to provide a driver, or when we sit atop the gasoline bomb and propel ourselves from place to place at speeds incomprehensible to our human ancestors.

Things will go wrong. As human beings, we have both the capacity to create such risk and the capacity to evaluate and accept it.

Did the plane crash in San Francisco bring an end to air travel on commercial jetliners? Of course not. News photos Thursday showed giant passenger airplanes landing in San Francisco directly beside the charred remains of the one that crashed a few days ago.

In Alaska, small planes are delivering new groups of vacationers to the magnificent wilderness of our largest American state, with everyone aboard anticipating pleasure and adventure.

And trains carrying flammable liquids and caustic chemicals are moving through Wyoming, Canada and America today as they have for generations, even as the huge, grisly aftermath of the runaway train wreck still confronts our eyes and sensibilities.

We have come too far to turn away from the technological demands we make on modern life. This is the bargain. Our only defense is vigilance.

As von Goethe put it, "Faust: Who holds the devil, let him hold him well. He hardly will be caught a second time."

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