Amanda Ripley


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What If?

28th Jun 2009 posted in General

If you happened to check Twitter  this week you probably saw many reactions to Monday’s red line metrorail crash here in DC. Commuters were instantly “tweeting” about the crash, the horrific commute that night and the following day, and their experiences with WMATA. Couple that with a wide range of responses from all over the country, and Twitter revealed an interesting look at people’s reactions.

Some Twitter users posted the traditional responses:  “My prayers and thoughts are with the families of the dead & injured due to the Metro train accident on the Red Line here in the DC area.” Others commented on their experience with the red line, however brief or seemingly unimportant: “Slightly horrified by DC metro crash yesterday. Rode the red line when I was there for inauguration. Prayers for the peeps.” or “The pics from the Metro accident are disturbing. My bro just took the red line to the zoo a few days ago. Prayers out to everyone affected.” Even one ride on DC’s red line qualifies you to join the “What If?” debate (i.e., “What if I had been there?” “What if this had happened when I went to the Inauguration?”).

Why do we do this after every tragedy? I heard the story of a Washington, DC, mom who on Monday decided to drive instead of hopping on the red line during rush hour, thus essentially avoiding the crash. Certainly she’s justified in wondering what would have happened had she taken the metro instead. But that’s not the same thing as visiting DC and riding the red line to the zoo for a mere 15 minutes.

Or maybe it is. The brain needs predictability.  We want our subways to arrive on time, make the same stops and generally be the thing helping us get to and from work each day.

Unfortunately, events like Monday’s accident aren’t predictable. Perhaps to make sense of what feels like a random disaster, we have to attach it to something familiar.  In this particular instance, if you’ve ever been on the red line, it’s suddenly clear that this could easily happen to you. The brain is unsettled by this notion, so we marvel at it, trying to resolve the dissonance—trying to come up with some way to find (or create) causality: “Will be sitting in the absolute middle of metro cars in the future. Scary, sad events on the Red Line yesterday.”