Last week in SR, Maurice Smith
wrote about closure – 'the kind of thing people long for after a distressing period'. I have no views on the Clutha disaster itself but I do have worries about the fashionable search for closure.
The desire for closure is a recent development, probably related to the decline of organised religion. A couple of generations ago, few people spoke about closure but they did speak about acts of God, an idea which depending on context could be either consoling or terrifying. It could be consoling in the common Christian narrative that someone taken too soon had gone to join their maker and would eventually be reunited with loved ones in an eternity of bliss. Conversely, it could be terrifying where death was seen as an act of divine retribution, a justified punishment for sinners.
The idea of an act of God had a further resonance in a Calvinist context. For Calvin, the absolute divide between the majesty of God and the depravity of fallen mankind could only be bridged by God's ineffable grace. It was futile, even impious, for mere mortals to try to understand the inscrutable purposes of God. Insofar as people could achieve closure, this could only come through humble acceptance of God's will.
This mindset had many advantages in a stratified society where the poor were expected to know their place and illness and early death were commonplace. (My maternal grandparents saw half their children buried before adulthood.) But it is deeply alien to the values that have prevailed since 1945 – democracy, equality, education and universal human rights. It is now taken for granted that people have a right to call authority to account, to have things explained, to understand what happened. As part of this, they see closure as a natural entitlement.
It is not easy to reconcile these beliefs, as the Clutha FAI has shown. Closure depends on knowledge and adjudication of several different kinds. It may involve knowing the facts of what happened. It may involve assigning responsibility for what happened. And, where responsibility crosses the boundary into criminal wrongdoing or civil delict, it may involve punishing the guilty or – perhaps better – publicly forgiving them through a process of truth and reconciliation. Different kinds of disaster call for different kinds of closure. The sheer arbitrariness of some disasters defies understanding and the uncertainty of not knowing may continue to gnaw indefinitely.
As the Clutha FAI shows, some facts lie beyond recovery. We will never know what happened in the helicopter cabin during the crucial minutes: we can only make guesses that are more or less informed. The finger of responsibility has been pointed at the pilot, but guilt can never be proved.
This brings us back to the idea of an act of God, or of pure accident. One role of the traditional idea of God was to make accidents impossible, or perhaps unthinkable. Since God was omnipotent and omniscient, nothing could happen without his consent: natural disasters must form part of some divine plan and moral evil must be explained by the bad but free choices of fallen humanity.
At other times and places people have sought closure by hunting for witches. In his classic anthropological study, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande
, E E Evans-Pritchard discussed the problem of the collapsing granary. The Azande often sit under their elevated granaries to shelter from the sun. Occasionally a granary will collapse, its pillars eaten away by termites, killing anyone underneath. When this happens, the survivors take steps to identify and punish the witch responsible. According to Evans-Pritchard, there is no failure of empirical reasoning among the Azande: they understand all the relevant facts about termites and structural failure. But these facts do not answer the key question: why did the granary collapse at the exact moment when those people (and not others) were sheltering under it. Since events cannot happen randomly, some witch must have intervened.
If we reject belief in God and witches and there is no alternative social consensus, there may be no alternative to accepting that some accidents are purely random. If so, some searches for closure may be self-defeating.
As one who has been in the flight safety world for many years may I chip in with a few thoughts? Aircraft accident investigations can be very good when the cause is technical but often very bad when the cause is human factors, which is usually the case. There is a convention that a pilot cannot be criticised if he is not there to defend himself, which is invariably the case if he is dead. Complacency, under arousal and distraction, followed by overloading, would account for most of the accidents to smallish aircraft flying non-routine flights close to the ground such as private, military, police and air ambulance flights, where typically there is only one pilot. I have no experience of helicopters but here is my guess:
The manual says that if the fuel gong sounds the aircraft must be landed within 10 minutes. We might surmise that there is actually a bit of fat in that – there might be as much as 20 minutes' fuel in the aircraft. We might surmise that pilots know this and get into the habit of flying on a bit after the gong, instinctively cancelling the repeat when it activates. Twenty minutes is an age
in this sort of flying and the alarm may have lost its immediacy, particularly in an experienced pilot who pushes the boundary all the time and has so far got away with it. And then he gets an additional tasking, thinks he has got a bit of fat in the tank, gets caught up in the excitement, overloads himself and loses the plot. Now find me a pilot or company representative or regulator who will admit in court that this sort of thing happens.
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