LEARNING FROM DISASTER

Tuesday’s Germanwings air disaster in France left all of us shocked and heartbroken. But there’s a lesson to be learned. We all know the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I’d add that often it takes a village to find the truth.

This principle became evident years ago when I served on a San Francisco jury in a civil trial. A couple sued a supermarket for false arrest after a security guard handcuffed the man, accused of shoplifting cigarettes, and a scuffle ensued. Arriving at a verdict was challenging since jurors, being human, tend to sympathize with individuals rather than corporations.

Piece by piece, however, our deliberations gained focus. As with the two criminal juries on which I served, people from different backgrounds observed matters in their own individual ways. We talked. And we listened. Then came a breakthrough. The plaintiff’s wife testified that she’d injured her leg or her foot—I don’t remember which—in the fracas. It still hurt. But a woman on the jury observed the wife wearing high heels to court. She believed that despite vanity (I know about women and shoes) no woman would do this while recuperating from an injury. That bothered her. It bothered the rest of us, who hadn’t noticed the high heels. We found for the defendant.

How does this relate to the Germanwings disaster? Yesterday’s New York Times focused on an announcement from French officials, based on recovery of the plane’s voice recorder, that the pilot left the cabin after the Airbus A320 reached cruising altitude. Apparently, the co-pilot locked the door to the cockpit, refused to open it despite the captain’s pleas then brought the plane into descent mode and crashed it into a mountain.

French and German officials are engaged in a thorough investigation. They’ll ask many questions and analyze many theories. The more people involved and encouraged to speculate, the closer they’ll get to the truth. I write this because I read a number of comments from Times readers. Sure, they’re all over the lot. But they’re not misguided. People just see things differently. Because they do, intriguing thoughts emerge.

The article reported that the co-pilot was “breathing normally” throughout the descent. He was intent on suicide, it seemed. That and murder. But “Linda” and “Dana” both question whether the co-pilot’s breathing indicated consciousness or incapacitation. Could he have suffered a medical problem? (I ask: Just when the pilot left the cockpit?) Also, the only way to re-enter a locked cockpit is to punch in a special code—a fail-safe mechanism implemented as a follow-up to Nine-Eleven. “Tom K” wonders why the pilot didn’t enter the code? (I respond: Can anyone inside the cockpit override that? Late news—yes.)

These readers may not have the answers, but they ask meaningful questions. So do investigators. We may never know the absolute truth. But I do know this: Finding the truth often requires many and diverse points of view. The more we open events and issues to broad-based discussion—often in a bottom-up process—the better our chances of making sense of the difficult challenges we face.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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