Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Storm Chasing, Disasters and Our Shared Humanity: Sorting Out Emotions and Ethics

I am a storm chaser and I hate tornadoes. I hate them because they are monsters, even more so because they are beautiful monsters with an irresistible, mesmerizing attraction that both confuses my emotions and challenges my ethics. Moore has jolted me out my my stupor!

I was on a storm chase along the Red River when the first pictures of the devastation in Moore showed up in my social media feeds. And inexplicably, I began to search those same feeds for pictures or video. Just how screwed up that response was became overwhelming clear as I watched news media reports documenting the frightened screams of school children searching for their parents after the monster did its devilish work. I saw pictures of parents and teachers with bloodied faces carrying their precious little loved ones.

Somewhere in the hype of storm chasing I have forgotten an important ethical reality:  Tornadoes are NEVER to be celebrated. Perhaps their frightening power and awesome beauty can be respectfully enjoyed in those cases when nothing is destroyed – I say “perhaps” because even then we are incredibly close to an ethical precipice.

It is far too easy to get caught up in shooting the best picture or creating awesome video in the hope of a moment in the limelight. On Sunday, I was a witness to a violent tornado that destroyed property and snuffed out human lives. And, regrettably, yesterday I went out storm chasing as if nothing had happened. In the midst of pursuing the power, beauty and adrenaline rush of witnessing supercells and tornadoes I have lost a part of my humanity. And that ends now!

In the community of chasers (I am including myself, obviously) there has been a gradual drift from actions and intentions rooted in our shared humanity with the victims of disaster. For example, there was a time when the chase stopped immediately when the first damage to human habitation was witnessed. Now, mostly, the chase continues until the event is over and then comes the return to provide assistance.

Additionally, we have tried to convince ourselves that our hobby serves a significantly useful public service by increasing awareness, disaster preparedness and scientific research. Sometimes we do benefit the public welfare in those ways, but not as often as we would like to think. Mostly, I believe, we are rationalizing – engaging ourselves in a subtle form of self-deception. Our real intentions lean in directions other than the public good: not necessarily nefarious – just self-centered.

As a chaser who enjoys the hobby immensely, I am not calling for a moratorium. But, I think, I am calling for a restoration of an approach to storm chasing that carries with it a deep and honest recognition of the reality of what we do. We need to be very careful with our language when talking about our chases and describing what we see and document. We need to pursue the public welfare more intentionally. (There are a variety of ways to accomplish that goal.)  And perhaps we need to abandon the "profit" motive altogether. As a Christian and as a human being, I know with my head at least that there is something terribly wrong about gaining personal advantage in the midst of someone else's disaster. If we receive monetary remuneration, let it be used to cover our expenses or assist those victimized. If we receive time in the public eye, let it be wisely used to educate and hopefully help to mitigate loss of life. In short let us strive to recover our sense of compassion and shared humanity with those who are on the receiving end of what these terrible monsters dish out. To be there and document what happens for the public welfare is a good thing, but we must be careful to remain truthfully centered in that intent.. And, I believe, we can stand in awe of the dangerous power and magnificent beauty of what we see in the process. 

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