Ebola, the Eastland, and Government

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I Love These Guys

I think its safe to say governments, particularly in the form of the lower houses of law-making bodies, are usually reactionary, very rarely proactive. For the simple reason that being reactionary is a very public way of ‘solving a problem’ while proactive measures are pretty damn hard to trumpet after they work.

“Hey, the bill I sponsored, fought for, sold out my principles and friends for, stopped the sentient space zombie pig invasion before it could be launched!” Sounds great, but absent video evidence of the cruelty of said swine, a graphic outline of what they planned to do when they got here, and/or the largest pig roast in human history, everyone will simply shrug, say that was Congress’ job anyway and go on with business.

There’s a lot more visibility, a lot more votes, in acting after the space pigs invade, stopping them in the Rockies, and authorizing release of, yup, you guessed it, the swine flu to finally annihilate them. Reaction beats pro-action in politics by a good deal, I would think. (the ability of a governing body to think ahead is, obviously, not part of this post.)

Reactionary legislation, by the way, is a nice way of saying knee-jerk. It’s also safe to say, I’m reasonably sure, the bigger the event, the bigger the knee-jerk. Knee jerks, of course, can and do range from a few laws, a mountain of new law, to war. All address the event, all leave a long, lusty, historical trail of misery for years, if not generations. Unintended of course – sorry Japanese-Americans – but neverending.

One hundred and two years ago the Titanic sunk. The tragedy of the era. 12247_4621c1cc09907Some very rich, very influential people died. Many of them Americans. It was and is uncontroverted that there were not enough lifeboats and flotation devices on the Titanic for guys named Guggenheim and Astor to survive.

Congress sprung into action. The Senate sponsored a bill to require lifeboats, life belts and flotation devices to accommodate 75 percent of a vessel’s passengers. The bill was debated, argued, testimony was given and testimony was ignores. In the end the bill was signed into effect by President Wilson in early 1915.

The bill made no distinction between ocean going and river and lake vessels. There is quite a lot of difference between them. As was pointed out in the testimonies. Often. At the time the Great Lakes were jam packed with vessels, as were our major rivers. Ship owners, engineers, etc. all pointed out that lake and river vessels had much – much – shallower drafts than their ocean-going brethren.

It was then simple mathematics to illustrate the devastatingly simple fact that the more weight added to the topsides of a shallow draft ship the higher the chance of the ship turning turtle at the first opportunity. Then, as now, Congress wasn’t about to let all that science stand in the way of good law.

eastlandShips in the US were immediately retrofitted to meet the new law’s requirements. One such ship was the SS Eastland in Chicago. A Great Lake excursion ship, notoriously top heavy before the new law, made about as seaworthy with the new outfitting as a cork with a bullet pushed into it. In July 1915, 2500 plus people, families really, going out on a Westinghouse Company excursion boarded the Eastland.

She flipped at the dock. Right over. In front of several agents of The United States [Steamboat] Inspection Service. Carl Sandburg reported she went over “like a dead jungle monster shot through the heart.” When all was said and done 844 people, many of them children, died 20 feet from the dock.

A horrifying result of a knee-jerk reaction to a horrifying tragedy.

One hundred years ago, ships have changed, ship rules have changed, technology 79997774is at science fiction levels, but a legislative body is still … well, a legislative body. With elections coming up. And an epidemic that has hit about 12 people in the United States but – big but – is across all media every damn second, every day. For a politician, it’s the perfect time to show she’s on it, on the issues that matter, out there brandishing new laws like Salk did his vaccine.

They’ll take care of it, just as long as all those scientist guys shut up and do what’s right for the country.

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