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Degrees of Difficulty

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Police officers responding in Boston (Reuters)

Police officers responding in Boston after Monday’s bombings. (Reuters)

I arrived in the doctor’s office Monday afternoon and took a seat in the waiting room with four other people, none of whom had their heads craned in the direction of the large, muted TV near the entry way.

It was 2:30 central time, meaning the office had a difficult call of picking between the Mount Rushmore of mid-afternoon programming – Judge Judy, Steve Harvey, Judge Mathis or The Bill Cunningham Show. And one of those is almost certainly what had been showing on that 42-inch LED set when it happened.

Forty minutes earlier, two bombs went off near the Boston Marathon finish line. The national news stations were still in the process of trying to piece together what happened, but the images we’d see in the immediate aftermath and as the day progressed were truly awful. The oldest annual marathon in the world, one that’s been around for 116 years and held on what’s an absolutely sacred day in Boston, had seemingly been terrorized.

No one else in that doctor’s office seemed to care, as all four other patients had their eyes locked on their phones or a magazine. After five minutes of trying to process what I’d been seeing, they called my name so I could wait in another small room after a nurse took my blood pressure.

“Apparently a bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon,” I said in a quizzical, helpless tone as she led me down the hall. “Crazy,” she responded dismissively, the way you’d react if someone told you their dog had diarrhea when they took him for a walk that morning.

We’re a nation that’s obsessed with statistics. Heck, I work at a company called STATS. We need everything to be quickly quantified so we can process its place in our lives, be it a sporting event, a political race or an unspeakable tragedy.

When the events of September 11th unfolded and in the days and weeks after, we were constantly reminded it was the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. We know that two planes hit the World Trade Center towers at 8:46 and 9:03 a.m. EST, another hit the Pentagon at 9:37 and that United Flight 93 went down in southwestern Pennsylvania at 10:03 after a passenger revolt. We later learned that 2,996 people lost their lives that morning that America was forever changed.

As Boston and the rest of the nation were trying to make some sense of what happened yesterday, the New York Post – hardly a bastion of journalistic ethics but still the seventh-most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. – reported that there were 12 fatalities in the Boston bombings. No other outlet reported more than three, which was officially the number that stood as of this afternoon.

The Post seems to have finally backtracked, now claiming in this story that identifies two of the victims that “at least three people” were killed. It’s always better to be accurate than first, something that especially holds true when dealing with a senseless tragedy yet has essentially gone out the window with the rise of Twitter and a thirst for networks to beat their competitors.

A woman walks along a Boston sidewalk. (Boston Globe)

A woman walks along a Boston sidewalk Monday afternoon. (Boston Globe)

As I sat in that waiting room, staring at the TV and wondering what just happened, the ambivalence of the other patients said it all. While it was clear that something very bad had occurred, it also appeared that whatever happened was over, that there was no further threat and that a fairly small number of people, 1,000 miles away, were affected.

Somehow I don’t think the reaction in that doctor’s office would have been the same during 9/11, as it became evident that more than just a handful of innocent people had lost their lives. But whether it’s three people or 3,000 shouldn’t be the tool we use to measure catastrophe.

Like pregnancy, there are no degrees of tragedy. The thankfully low number of fatalities to come out of such a horrific event certainly doesn’t make it any easier on Bill Richard, who on Monday lost his 8-year-old son Martin while his wife, Denise, suffered a brain injury and his 6-year-old daughter Jane lost her leg.

Maybe we’ve just seen too many of these events in recent years. Maybe we’ve become numb. Maybe we’ve accepted that whether it’s a movie theater in Aurora, an elementary school in Newtown or the finish line on Boylston Street, senseless things are beyond our control.

We shouldn’t.

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