Last Saturday, a four year old boy on a visit to the Cincinnati Zoo with his family somehow managed to get through a barrier and then fell fifteen feet into a gorilla enclosure. There he attracted the attention of a male gorilla named Harambe, who (perhaps in part agitated by the shouts of the frightened crowd) dragged the boy by his foot, back and forth across the enclosure. When zoo keepers were unable to lure the gorilla away from the boy, they made the decision to shoot and kill Harambe lest he kill the child before they were able to tranquilize the gorilla.
Needless to say, no one wanted things to end this way. The parents certainly did not want their child to fall fifteen feet and then be dragged around by a four hundred pound gorilla. The zoo did not want to have to kill one of their prized animals. Even the two non-rational actors in the situation -- the four-year-old and the gorilla -- surely didn't want things to go the way that they did.
However, we live in a time and place in which there is a particularly deep belief that bad things should not happen. Thus, if something bad does happen, it's because someone is to blame. Some say the zoo was negligent. And others, a seemingly increasingly vicious group, have concluded that it was obviously the fault of the child's parents.
The internet was already boiling with people sure that someone whose child slipped away and got into a gorilla enclosure must be a terrible parent when the mother involved made the mistake of trying to explain herself in a Facebook posting. By Monday the threats and harassment of the family had become so bad that the Cincinnati Police Department felt it necessary to step up protection and monitoring of the situation.
Some of this is, of course, simply the kind of internet mob mentality which seems to be a fixture of the modern social media world. People feel that they are "doing something" about an upsetting situation by venting online and engaging in online harassment of people they perceive as bad. But what's more significant, I think, is the need to see the parents as bad in the first place.
Perhaps one element in this is that people do not want to think that a bad thing could happen to them. "I'm a good parent." The thinking goes. "I watch over my kids. I do my best. I don't want to think that anything bad could ever happen to my children." And so, to keep that fear at bay, it's necessary to think that anyone to whom something bad does happen must somehow have asked for it.
Maybe these parents were negligent, and maybe they weren't. There's no way for the denizens of the internet to know. Whether the boy's parents could have kept a better eye on him or not, the fact is that no situation is foolproof. I doubt that any parent, no matter how conscientious has never had a child slip off for a moment or do some unexpected, dangerous thing. The thing is that these uncounted slips, these near misses, are usually just that: misses or very minor accidents.
Most of the time, these near miss events result in nothing, just like the other near misses in our lives: the knife which falls from the counter but just misses your foot, the car you see in your blind spot just a moment before you start to change lanes, the deer who hesitates on the side of the road but then doesn't jump out in front of you. Perhaps some perfect degree of care could have made each of these near misses less likely to happen or less likely to go badly. But it's usually not the degree of care or preparedness which is responsible for saving us, it's the fact that most bad things that could happen don't. There are constant openings for catastrophe which don't quite result in calamity. Often we learn from these to be more careful in some way, but even so, the near misses are made less frequent, not completely eliminated.
It's not primarily virtue or preparedness which determines whether a near miss turns into a real life catastrophe. It's mostly chance.
So yes, the zoo should look at their enclosure designs, and parents should be mindful of where their children are. If these things can make an incredibly unlikely accident even more unlikely, that's good. But at the same time, it's important to realize that sometimes fate just deals everyone a really bad hand. Unlikely bad outcomes are still just that: unlikely, not impossible. And it's really not possible to work every single possibility for catastrophe out of a situation.
Sometimes bad things happen, and it's not because someone is at fault. It's just because sometimes bad things happen.
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