The Bottom Line

Jake Ewing

April 16, 2014

I was finishing up my breakfast when the story came on the television – a shaky video, indiscriminate yelling, and what appeared to be a raging wildfire. After my initial confusion, I began to understand what had happened. A natural gas line had burst a few days earlier in San Bruno, California. Current views of the area started coming across the screen, snapshots of the devastation and desolation left in the wake of the blaze. The neighborhood had been utterly destroyed, seeming more like a desert than a California suburb.

I continued to watch the television, waiting for the “bottom line.” In any tragedy, the “bottom line” is the most vital piece of information the media can provide to their viewers. It is what everyone wants to know. It is a figure that even a casual observer will be able to cite in the upcoming discussions they will undoubtedly have about the incident. How many dead? How many injured? My eyes remained focused on the screen as my mind estimated the bottom line.

I expected around twenty people dead, maybe a hundred injured in the fire. When the statistic flashed across the screen, I was happy to be wrong – only four people dead, a few missing, and just fifty injured. The bottom line was pretty low for such a destructive event. With the necessary information, I finished my breakfast, satisfied with such a low body count. The story left my consciousness. I had moved on.

Later in the day, my mind wandered back to the story, reiterating the bottom line. Only four lives were lost, despite the magnitude of the fire. A death toll that small is miniscule on the tragedy scale. More people die in some car crashes than died in that entire event. As I thought more about the statistic, a strange thing happened. I started to understand my thoughts.

What I had failed to consider was the fact that each of those four people meant more than I could ever understand to their loved ones. I was horrified with myself. I had become desensitized to the very idea of death. Instead of reacting with empathy for a daughter who may have lost a father, a husband who may have lost a wife, or a fellow human being who may have lost a friend, my reaction was satisfaction in the fact that only four people had died. Not only was I willing to accept the fact that four human lives had been ended unexpectedly, suddenly, tragically – I was actually happy about it.

Had I known all four of the people who lost their lives, my reaction would have been completely different. Unfortunately, the people who lost their lives in the fire did not exist to me. I knew nothing about them at the time. I still don’t. They were a convenient statistic that my mind could use to understand an unfortunate event. They were a satisfying result in a tragedy that could have claimed many more lives. They were not people; they were “the bottom line.” After considering the subject, I was forced to ask myself an uncomfortable rhetorical question: How many people would have had to die in order to truly affect me?

I am entirely unsure of how to answer that question. What I am certain of, however, is that the bottom line isn’t going anywhere. Stories similar to the fire in San Bruno, California are far too numerous to count. As long as these tragedies continue, the news media in our society will continue to provide their viewers with the bottom line. The viewers, in turn, will continue to cite this statistic at work the next morning, as they discuss the story with others. The bottom line makes the loss of human life seem far less tragic, but it certainly is an effective tool.

I readily admit to the inhumanity present in the bottom line. What I’ve realized is that our humanity requires some inhumanity. This is the most horrifying aspect of this phenomenon – it is absolutely necessary. I cannot imagine society without the bottom line. The emotional effect of these events is both an abstract and horrifying concept, something which our brain is unable to fully comprehend. We need it because we have to be able to quantify tragedies in order to understand them. The numbers of the bottom line serve to simplify the loss of human life down to simple statistics, thereby dehumanizing the victims.

I shudder to think how I would react if I was able to completely recognize the value of each human life lost in the endless tragedies throughout the world. If we were unable to transform the deaths of human beings into an efficient, lifeless statistic, the amount of sadness would be an unbelievable burden. It may seem heartless, but the next time I encounter a tragic story, I won’t be asking for the personal stories of those who died, or how their family members have been affected by the tragedy. I’ll be asking the same two questions as everyone else: How many dead? How many injured?