Eliciting empathy over a tragedy matters

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Eliciting empathy over a tragedy matters

Lee Hyun-sang

The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

On the morning of its 1001th birthday, a turkey was happy. The farmer would feed her corn as he did over the past 1000 days. But on that day just two days before Thanksgiving, the farmer was not bearing food, but an ax. The turkey learned quickly that its expectations were catastrophically off the mark. The parable appears in “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb, an investment expert and math whiz, to remind us how difficult it is to predict the future based on past events.

Will such events only occur in the world of investment? The tragedy in Itaewon was akin to the 1001th day for the turkey. It was a black swan event nobody expected to happen. A sarcastic reaction like “I knew it!” is nothing but a confirmation bias.

On Saturdays shortly before Halloween from 2017 to 2019 before the pandemic, an average of 60,000 passengers got off the subway at Itaewon Station. This year, the number was 80,000. In the past, 37 to 90 police officers were deployed to Itaewon around Halloween, but this year 137 were dispatched. While the crowd swelled by 30 percent, the police increased by at least 50 percent.

Nevertheless, they could not prevent the deadly crowd crush that led to the 156 deaths. The police did not consider what would happen if the number of people joining in the festivities exceeded a critical point. The emergency call center at the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency did not try to find out what was happening there even after getting repeated warnings from people. It just dismissed an upcoming tragedy.

The Itaewon disaster must be a misfortune for the Yoon Suk-yeol administration. Some politicians would want to believe such a tragedy wouldn’t have occurred under the Moon Jae-in administration. But that is just wishful thinking. The nation’s administration system, capability and practice cannot change in just a few months. However, if the new administration laments its misfortune and deny its responsibility, the situation will get out of control.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min’s weird comment — “Even if additional police had been deployed in advance, it could not have solved the problem” — precisely represents the current administration’s perception of the disaster. Lee’s remarks immediately triggered public anger at the nonchalance of the conservative government. Pressure is not just building in the narrow alley in Itaewon. People who saw an unbearable tragedy unfolding before their eyes want to find an exit to vent their outrage. The interior minister shirking his responsibility and the prime minister making an out-of-context joke at a press conference only escalate the pressure.

The Democratic Party (DP) has turned to the offensive from a restraint. A DP lawmaker in a fitting tone proposed the party take a “half-a-step slower” approach to minimize adverse effects from its vehement attacks on the government. Though a political novice, the lawmaker was well aware that politics is a battle over public opinion. On the part of President Yoon and his People Power Party (PPP), they also need to take a “half-a-step faster” approach. If Interior Minister Lee and National Police Agency Commissioner General Yoon Hee-keun should be held accountable for the lethargic response of the police, President Yoon must fire them before they resolve the crisis. In other words, addressing the disaster must include dismissing them from the start.

The same applies to apologies. When the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy took place, President Park Geun-hye apologized 14 days later in a Cabinet meeting. After public anger somewhat subsided, she had to apologize to the general public once again. She made the apology with tears, but it was too late to reverse public ire.

The presidential office in Yongsan said that Yoon had repeatedly expressed apologies on several occasions after the tragedy. But that does not make sense. What was needed most is an immediate and sincere apology. Also, his apology should have included such phrases as “Mea culpa” and “I will change the public safety system in a revolutionary way.” Yoon must not repeat the mistake of Park, who blamed the Sewol ferry disaster on her predecessor.

Politicization of disasters have become the norm. A spate of fake news and illogical claims about the cause of the Itaewon tragedy have started. A half-baked response to such attacks only invites the “disasterization” of politics. Exploiting a public tragedy for political gains is not right, but an attempt to downplay it also backfires. And yet, the Interior Ministry sent official letters to local governments and cities recommending they use expressions such as “accident, the dead, and the injured” rather than “disaster and victims.” That is simply wrong. What the Yoon administration must do is to elicit empathy from the moderates with its sincere and prudent language. If the administration can’t do that, it could be doomed.
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