Ignoring mayhem, until it's tortured kids or a jetliner
A train leaves the track someplace, we raise an eyebrow. A drug dealer jumps the rails and shoots three other people in the same line of work, we wonder who raised him.
Then we move on. A quick visual of some crumpled Amtrak cars, a quick thought about the perils of crime, maybe a quick thanks for our better luck or better lives.
The stories come so quickly we barely have time to be appalled, even if we have the inclination. But then ...
Then, every so often, we're faced with something so ghastly we can't turn away.
We ignore the day-to-day carnage, then shudder at an impact halfway around the world and bring balloons and stuffed animals to one isolated crime scene on the edge of downtown.
Being rational, it makes no sense. But being human, say the experts, it's not only normal, it's necessary.
Last week, the copilot of a Germanwings airliner deliberately crashed his Airbus A320 into a French mountainside and killed himself and 149 others. And last week, we learned that a woman in Detroit had apparently killed two of her children, packed their bodies into a freezer and continued on with her other two children and her twisted life.
It was too easy to picture ourselves in the airplane, where the locked-out pilot beat helplessly on the cockpit door while the passengers spent eight minutes preparing to die. And it was impossible not to picture the two surviving children closer to home, sharing a small apartment with a lunatic and the frozen bodies of their brother and sister.
"We have a protective threshhold," says Ron Samarian, the chief of psychiatry at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
It's a mental shield, deflecting the everyday crimes and mishaps to keep them from becoming personal. But it's defeated every so often by something too horrific to be ignored.
"Fortunately," Samarian says, "we don't have those stories every day."
Otherwise they would become the new threshhold, and Lord help us all.
Trying to cope
George Hunter is covering the story of Mitchelle Blair and her children for The Detroit News.
It's hardly his first encounter with the worst of humanity; he even co-wrote a book about the murder and dismemberment of Tara Grant by her sociopath husband in 2007.
This case, however, has staggered him, probably because children are involved.
"I learned long ago," he says, "to stop trying to figure out how people can do things like that, because you can't."
At Apex Behavorial Health in Dearborn, clinical psychologist Tanya Martin has deliberately shed her armor for the plane crash and the murders at the Martin Luther King Jr. townhouse complex.
To her — and, she hopes, to others — they're a reminder that "we just don't embrace the mental health system the way we need to."
It's a flawed and underfunded system anyway; simply being in agony won't get you admitted, so people who aren't dangerous have learned to declare that they are.
Meantime, many of the people who might truly do harm won't seek help or don't know how.
"I have to wonder," Martin says. Aghast as we are at what Blair allegedly did, "would we have been supportive if she had said there were problems?"
Declaration of decency
Maybe. After the fact, though, we are quick to flock to the murder scene with flowers and Teddy bears.
"We can't do anything else," Martin says, so we show our love and support when it's too late. "It helps us feel better."
Samarian calls it a form of atonement. When children are murdered a short drive from where our own are sleeping, the tragedy becomes real and we think, "It could have been us."
A stuffed animal along an iron fence becomes a declaration of decency: not every part of the world is bleak, even if yours was.
Better, though, to spend the effort and the money to help the next child. Send a check to an agency that feeds the hungry or helps sooth tortured psyches.
"Help someone else in their name," Samarian says.
Then take shelter again behind the shield, until the next time we're drawn out. It's the safest place to be.