A Word to Erase Harm

How labeling things ‘accidents’ can allow them to keep happening

Jessie Singer
Oct 5, 2017 · 4 min read
Image: Shendart/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Last year, a few blocks from my house, a man shot another man. I knew because my husband’s phone buzzed.

My husband is a newspaper photographer, and he subscribes to a service where the police radio is transcribed and sent to him in emails. That night, with his camera, he ran down the street outside our house.

When he came home, I asked, “What happened?”

“Someone got shot,” he said.

“Was it bad?”

“They shot him in the head,” he said.

“Oh,” I said, in shock. “Maybe it was an accident.”

The word slipped out, like a salve for the shock.

Last summer, Lorrie Slattery’s grandson was eight years old, a biracial boy living in New Hampshire.

At the end of August, he went out to play with the neighborhood kids. The neighborhood kids were white teenagers, and that day, as the family remembers it, there were four of them.

Slattery later told reporters that the neighborhood kids had made a noose from the rope of a broken tire swing that swung loose above a picnic table in someone’s yard. Then, the neighborhood kids convinced her grandson to put his neck in it. Then, they shoved him off the table beneath him.

Later, Slattery’s grandson came home with bleeding welts under his chin that stretched up to behind his ears. Later, the doctor said he should not be alive and it was a miracle that he was.

After Slattery called the police, officers went to speak to one of the boys who allegedly hung her grandson from a tree.

“The child said it was an accident,” Slattery remembers police officers telling her daughter. “There’s nothing we can do.” (The police chief refuted this account, telling Newsweek, “From the get-go, we’ve believed this was a serious incident.”)

When a child wets the bed, the child is told that it was an accident as reassurance that there will be no reprisal.

Later, when a child hits a sibling, or steals a toy, or hangs a neighbor from a tree, the child says that it was an accident to avoid reprisal.

Last fall, the Cleveland Indians were in New York, playing the Yankees. Todd Frazier was at bat for the Yankees. He hit the ball at more than 100 mph, way wide of the third baseline. The foul ball hit a toddler in the face.

Frazier took a knee and covered his mouth. All anyone could say was that there was so much blood.

Later, WKYC Channel 3 Cleveland went to the local stadium to hear what fans thought about what had happened. Some thought that stadiums should hang a net to catch foul balls. Others disagreed.

“Haven’t we babied society enough?” one fan told WKYC. “Put a helmet on if you’re concerned. It was an accident; they happen.”

“Accident” is a word we use to erase some harm we may have caused. It is also a word we use to erase the harm that other people have caused.

The baseball fan did what I did when someone shot my neighbor and what the white neighborhood boys did when they allegedly acted out a hate crime they had read in a book or seen on TV. They got the fuck away from something that was hard to see.

We all push ourselves away from other people’s worst, and our own. We call it an “accident” to get away.

And in the process, prevention is lost. Nothing gets better this way. Whether we are the perpetrator or a passerby, when we call something an accident, we grease the tracks for it to happen again.

In 2002, Brittanie Cecil died two days before her 14th birthday after taking a puck to the face in the stands of a Columbus Blue Jackets game. After she died, the National Hockey League began to require safety nets at all arenas. No one has died since.

Before Brittanie died, an average three or four people were hit by a puck at every hockey game. But before Brittanie died, nothing was ever done. It was an accident, every time, until someone died.

The two-year-old who was hit by the baseball has largely recovered from fractured facial bones and brain bleeding, though she still wears an eye patch over several hours a day. Both the Yankees and the Indians have extended their safety nets.

ACCIDENT

An on-going column by journalist Jessie Singer about…

Jessie Singer

Written by

Senior Editor @TransAlt, writing a column about accidents in America. Subscribe: tinyletter.com/accident

ACCIDENT

ACCIDENT

An on-going column by journalist Jessie Singer about accidents, blame, and accountability in America.

Jessie Singer

Written by

Senior Editor @TransAlt, writing a column about accidents in America. Subscribe: tinyletter.com/accident

ACCIDENT

ACCIDENT

An on-going column by journalist Jessie Singer about accidents, blame, and accountability in America.

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