Thousands of complete strangers cared about Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos. They cared enough to donate tens of thousands of dollars. They held vigils. They prayed. They shared the parents’ grief as hope faded for the two teens lost at sea
Why? What makes the public suddenly care about some people in peril while others garner far less attention, support and help?
Of course the drama of a possible rescue and the imperative to act swiftly helped create the intense interest in finding the missing boys. In that sense, it is reminiscent of the sensational coverage in 1987 of the successful attempt to rescue “Baby Jessica” McClure after the 18-month-old fell down a well in Texas.
But the hope of rescue can’t be the only factor. Many people, for example, who recognize the names of Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos will draw a blank on the name of William Morlock. Morlock is the Stuart paddle boarder who went missing the same day as Perry and Austin. Many people who do recognize Morlock’s name will do so only because his loss was mentioned in passing during many reports on the missing 14-year-olds.
Most of the killings are taking place in crime-filled neighborhoods, mostly by gangs who are shielded by the community out of fear of reprisal. The two boys in the boat were not criminals and seemed to be victims of fate, although of their own doing. Life was precious to the boys families and…
One reason for the difference in treatment is that Morlock was 58 and children in peril inherently are more sympathetic than adults. Children hearing about Perry and Austin identify with their peers; parents easily can imagine what the youths’ parents are going through.
Morlock’s circumstances and story simply were not as compelling. The ubiquitous fishing-related pictures of the two boys also added the special individual perspective that so often plays a role in grabbing public attention.
It is initially counterintuitive, but a relatively small-scale tragedy is more likely to evoke a large-scale reaction. I don’t mean to imply that the tragedy was, for the families and friends, small in scope. But it is easier for the public to grasp a tragedy when they can personalize the tragedy.
There is so much tragedy and misery in the world — much of it on a large scale — that humans attempting to absorb it all would short-circuit. Instead, we fixate on a smaller serving.
While this is understandable, it actually represents a perplexing failure of human compassion. We can prove incapable of grasping, and acting on, more widespread tragedy.
Outrage over the killing of Cecil the Lion is a fascinating example. I get why people are angry and newly mobilized against “big game” hunters. But there are much more pressing, human tragedies in Africa. Visit the Care.org website and find a list of crises in Africa that put tens of millions of people at risk of death from starvation and violence.
Have you read more about Cecil the Lion than you have read about the plight of tens of millions of human beings? Does the world care more about Cecil the Lion than it does about the plight of those human beings?
And while the concern over the death of two 14-year-olds is commendable, there are entire areas of child welfare that we conveniently ignore or discount. Consider the toll of gun violence on children. About seven children and young adults under 20 die from guns every day. Homicide involving firearms is the second-leading cause of death for children and young people in America.
Recent incidents in Broward County alone have seen a 14-year-old fatally shot in the head while playing with a gun at a friend’s house and a 12-year-old girl shot in the arm while her father was teaching her about gun safety. In Miami, a 3-year-old suffered a gunshot wound to the head under unclear circumstances.
Meanwhile, Florida continues to defend the “Docs & Glocks” law that forbids doctors to talk to parents about gun ownership and safety. Concern and sympathy over individual gun tragedies might be real, but it does not motivate the public to insist that elected officials enact policies likely to prevent further, similar tragedies.
There is more talk about amending boating laws than there is about reining in gun violence, even though the toll from guns is much higher and more urgent.
We can and do have big hearts. We have to try harder to apply those big hearts to the big picture.