Oddly absent from media coverage of the horrific crash of a Continental Airlines flight near Buffalo is any re-evaluation of this wondrous term "miracle" that was being thrown around so readily last month, when a US Airways A320 free-landed (or "ditched") in the Hudson River, with all 155 aboard saved through skill, bravery and level-headedness of human crew, passengers and New York City first-responders -- not to mention stone cold luck.
In much of the media narrative for the Hudson River incident, human skill and courage took a supporting role. Primarily, in some of the media, this was the "Miracle on the Hudson," as the accidental New York governor, David ("Hey, It's a Miracle I Got This Job") Paterson, kept prattling.
Our media lexicon of piety, while fulsome and abundant, evidently does not have a word for the withholding of a miracle -- which is the only logical way one can define the consequences of the Buffalo crash, assuming one had previously defined the consequences of the Hudson River crash as the bestowing of a miracle.
Piety is not my strong suit.
On Sept. 29, 2006, I was one of seven men who walked away from a horrific mid-air collision at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil. Such a thing had not happened before, people surviving a high-altitude collision of two aircraft, unless it was in a military aircraft with an ejection seat and parachute.
What a miracle!, many said. But 154 passengers on the other plane, a Brazilian 737 airliner, were killed in that collision, in a hideous fiery plunge into the jungle. Where, I kept thinking, was their miracle? Why did I, so manifestly unworthy, receive this blessing, while they did not?
I bristled at this use of "miracle" because words have meaning and consequence. Valuing the supernatural as a component of a safe air-transportation system makes it easier to devalue skill, training, human courage and the importance of a well-maintained air-safety infrastructure.
When I got back home from Brazil, after I had filed my story, I dutifully made the network media and major print-media rounds, including the morning shows like Today. That afternoon, the local New York media began arriving at my home.
At times during the day, several crews were stacked up out front like trick-or-treaters. I remember being impressed by the famous television-reporter faces that showed up at the door -- thinking, hey, these people still do actual, knock-on-a-door legwork.
The last local news crew showed up in early evening. There was another familiar face, I guy I had seen on New York television for decades. He and his crew set up in the living room, as they all had, and he began the interview with a question that indicated what his angle would be.
"Do you believe in miracles?" he said, beaming in anticipation of my answer.
He looked crestfallen when I told him no, I did not believe in miracles, I believed in luck. "If what happened to me was a miracle, what do we call what happened to the 154 people who died on the other plane?" I said.
He soldiered morosely through the rest of the interview and packed up to rush into the studio for the 11 o'clock news, which I happened to catch on TiVo.
The anchorwoman introduced the segment by saying: "Next is an astonishing story of surviving a horrible airplane crash ... by an area man who doesn't believe in miracles."
And sure enough, under my image on the screen appeared the words, "Doesn't believe in miracles." Local TV news, I thought, is indomitable.
Which brings me back to the horrors of the most recent crash, and what I would argue is a responsibility to demand an explanation of a celestial miracle-worker who received the credit for the happy ending of the Hudson River crash: Why was a miracle withheld for those people on that plane approaching Buffalo in the wind and ice the other night?
Believing in miracles, one might also demand an accounting of the cruel coincidences inherent in this latest human disaster. Explain, for example, why this happened to the kind and gentle and tenacious 9/11 widow, Beverly Eckert, who died in the crash en route to a commemoration of the birthday of her husband, who had died on the 98th floor of one of the fallen towers that day? Explain to me the awful, cruel irony that Mohammad Atta, ringleader of the terrorist monsters of 9/11, boarded American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001, having arrived in Boston on a connecting flight aboard Colgan Air -- which was the operator of the doomed Buffalo flight.
Shouldn't one logically point out the following to any sentient, all-powerful potential miracle-worker with a hand in human tragedy: Devising or countenancing such gruesome coincidence is an act of psychosis, malevolent and unforgivable in any rational world?
Today I see pious scenes of stricken worshipers praying in churches, drawn there on a Saturday by the Buffalo crash. Praying for what? In any rational world in which the belief in supernatural miracles stubbornly persists, the faithful would be arriving with pitchforks and torches, demanding a full accounting.