Ignored to the end

Heat Wave
November 8, 2002

What kills you matters. In the first half of the past month two people a day were killed in Washington and its suburbs. There was no discernible pattern in their age, sex or ethnicity. They were killed suddenly and without warning by a stranger they had never met. Their families and friends grieved, but otherwise their fates attracted virtually no media attention. They were victims of road accidents. Over the same period, someone was killed every other day by the Washington sniper. Again there was no discernible pattern among the victims. Their fates attracted massive media coverage all around the world and led, far beyond the vicinity of their occurrence, to extraordinary changes in behaviour - ranging from a massive policing operation to people with their groceries jogging to their cars in zigzag patterns in supermarket car parks.

In Heat Wave , Eric Klinenberg confronts a similar phenomenon. He puts the death toll of the Chicago heat wave of 1995 at 700 and compares it with other much better-known disasters - twice as many as in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, 20 times the number of those struck by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, four times more than in the Oklahoma City bomb in 1995, more than three times the number killed on TWA flight 800 in 1996. Why, he asks, should the government, the media and public opinion attach so much more importance to the lives lost in these other disasters?

An obvious part of the answer is that Klinenberg has not chosen fair comparators. The 700 deaths that he attributes to the heat wave were overwhelmingly of people who were old and frail. In such populations, any environmental stressor such as a pollution episode or extreme heat (or cold) will advance the date of some deaths, sometimes by only a matter of days. In most societies the very old are cheered to the finishing line and their ultimate, inevitable demise is not mourned in the same way as that of someone cut down in their prime - as are most of the targets of snipers, terrorists and the victims of the other disasters Klinenberg cites. But that complaint aside, he has produced a damning indictment of the "malign neglect" with which the old, frail and poor and isolated are treated in Chicago.

Although the mayor, the Chicago city government and the media come in for heavy criticism for the way they responded to the heat wave, Klinenberg's main target is Society. The mayor and his government sit atop a set of problems that they can only pretend to govern. Which is why, when things go wrong, they spin furiously - "deny, deflect and defend" is Klinenberg's description of the city's relationship with the media. He speaks of "the political will to tolerate deprivation", but such is the dire shortage of social capital in the Chicago he describes that one almost feels sorry for the mayor, confronted by problems far beyond his powers to solve.

Klinenberg quotes one observer: "Time was, that neighbours took care of each other. They kept an eye on the lady who lives upstairsI not anymoreI community activists didn't ask how they could have worked to prevent some of these deaths. They asked why the city hadn't done moreI it seems neighbourliness is a skill we will have to relearn." His reaction to this perspective is ambivalent. He seems to accept it as a fair description of the problem while at the same time rejecting it as an attempt to "let the city government off the hook". His argument is further confused by his description of the thing he would impale on the hook: "The organisational complexity of a decentralised city government coupled with the bureaucratic slipperiness of overlapping city, county, state and federal jurisdictions make it difficult to pinpoint the lines of political accountability."

The causes of death that a society tolerates tell us much about its values. Through the years of terror in Northern Ireland, twice as many were killed in road accidents as by acts of terrorism. In Australia the annual road death toll is close to 20 times that attributed to the Bali bombs. The remarkable equanimity with which affluent, motorised America accepts more than 40,000 road accident deaths a year suggests a Faustian social contract by which this annual sacrifice is exchanged for the perceived individual freedom and control provided by the car. But any externally imposed threat, either to the control that governments perceive that they (should) have over events or to the control that individuals feel they (should) have over their own lives, creates alarm and panic.

Klinenberg contrasts the fates of the socially connected well-to-do with those of the isolated poor. The poverty and social exclusion suffered by most of those who died in the Chicago heat wave appear to have generated a biblical fatalism - ye have the poor always with you - among both rich and poor.

John Adams is professor of geography, University College London.

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago

Author - Eric Klinenberg
ISBN - 0 226 44321 3
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £19.50
Pages - 305

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