Why did the deaths of three individuals at the Boston Marathon trigger outrage on the part of Americans while the deaths of 1,127 people in the collapse of a Bangladesh clothing factory (hundreds more have died in clothing factory fires over the past decade) pass with little more than a "Gee, that's terrible" response from the public?
Perhaps the us/they mentality is the most salient factor in our emotional response to death and destruction. We readily empathize with those of our own tribe but have much less sympathy for individuals belonging to other groups.
Another reason for our vastly different emotional response to these events is that the Boston deaths were cold, calculated murders while the Bangladesh fatalities were viewed as an industrial "accident."
The collapsed Rana Plaza building is seen on May 13 in Savar, Bangladesh. The search for the dead ended on this day with a death toll of 1,127. About 2,500 injured people were rescued alive.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
From my perspective, the deaths of so many workers in the Bangladesh factory (approximately 80 percent of garment factory employees in that country are females under 30 years of age) was hardly an accident. Rather, the building collapse should be considered a "mass fatality" negligent homicide. This category of homicide results in the death of another person(s) through gross negligence, with or without malice. The requirement for this crime is that the defendant(s) acted, intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.
The owners of the collapsed building, as well as the factory operators, were cognizant of the dangers in that structure. The day before the catastrophe, word spread that existing cracks in the building were expanding. When Nazmu Huda, a local television journalist, arrived on the scene, men employed by the building's owner prevented him from entering the structure and filming the damage. Police officers warned him not to run a story about the building's structural integrity. Huda stated, "Local police and the local administration did not give importance to this problem. They could have locked the building." Was this refusal on the part of authorities to take appropriate action a tragic oversight, incompetence or corruption?
And what of the international clothing companies and big-box stores that sell apparel manufactured by employees laboring in unsafe structures for $38 a month? They spouted the same pathetic apology offered after similar (but less deadly) tragedies. That they had no idea of these deplorable, dangerous working conditions. That it was the responsibility of suppliers and subcontractors to oversee factory conditions. Some of the these corporations may well have been ignorant of the gravity of the situation. But how much of this was "willful ignorance," a deliberate decision to look the other way as long as clothing was produced as cheaply as possible?
Dara O'Rourke, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley, noted, "Even in a situation of gave threat, when they saw cracks in the walls, factory managers thought it was too risky not to work because of the pressure on them from U.S. and European retailers to deliver the goods on time." O'Rourke stated the prices Western companies pay to Bangladesh producers are so low "that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety." Kaploona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, told reporters, "American companies, they know exactly what is happening. We've told them."
Social commentator Julia Phillips notes that Americans haven't had to worry about criminal workplace deaths for more than 100 years as we have "outsourced" our inhumanity.
"We still want our cheap clothes," Phillips argues. "We just don't want them covered with soot from a fire" or debris from collapsed buildings in the U.S. Instead, we wear our inexpensive shirts and jeans "thick with blood, dust and ash" from Bangladesh.
In paragraph 28 of "Economic Justice for All," Roman Catholic bishops write, "Human dignity is defined as the set of fundamental human rights, inherent to every person. ... Dignity is correlated with just wages, humane working conditions, equal opportunity and participation, and basic material needs." (I imagine many Christian denominations as well as other religious traditions have similar statements of economic and social justice.) Clearly the production and distribution of garments manufactured in many, if not most, Bangladesh clothing factories (as well as factories throughout the developing world) make a mockery of this declaration.
The bishops' statement brings us to the final link in the responsibility chain: the consumer. What responsibility do we have for the deaths of so many girls and young women in Bangladesh? We (including yours truly) fuel the demand for cheap clothing.
I find this question to be especially important in a predominatnly Judeo-Christian nation with the highest rate of believers among the wealthy nations. Priests, ministers and rabbis preach doing the right thing, living by the "Golden Rule," ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto to you.") Is knowingly buying clothing made by people toiling in near-slave, life-threatening, sometimes life-taking conditions doing the right thing? Is it a sin to profit from the exploitation of others? If not, why not?
Why is stealing a $3 shirt made in Bangladesh a sin, but buying this same piece of apparel sewn by 16-year-old girls working for near-starvation wages in a Third World death trap acceptable Christian behavior? Does being a penny-wise consumer ("I got a real good deal on a sweater made in Bangladesh") trump the Golden Rule and Christian social doctrine? Sometimes? Always? (One can't expect consumers to trace back the supply and distribution chain of every item purchased, but the evils of Bangladesh clothing factories were well known years prior to the latest tragedy.)
I am not attempting to be arrogant, flippant or condescending by posing these questions. Rather, I seek clarification and invite members of the Tri-Lakes clergy to respond to this query. I'm sure they routinely speak of the many evils in contemporary American society, including abortion, pornography, drug use, sexual promiscuity, violence, greed, materialism, etc. What about the evil of taking economic advantage of the most disadvantaged class of people (young females) in one of the poorest countries in the world?
I look forward to your responses.
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
"Criminally Negligent Homicide" (accessed June 21, 2013) Tennessee Criminal Law Resources, www.tncrimlaw.com
Hossain, F. (May 13, 2013) "Bangladesh collapse search over; death toll 1,127" Adirondack Daily Enterprise
Manik, J., S. Greenhouse, and J. Yardley (April 25, 2013) "Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh" New York Times, www.nytimes.com
Phillips, J. (May 18, 2013) "Bangladesh Building Collapse: Why It Should Scare Americans" Policy Mic, www.policymic.com
Russell, M. (accessed 2013) "The Economic Agenda of Catholic Social Teaching: The Framework for a Normative Social Theory,' College of Business Administration, University of Northern Iowa, business.uni.edu