What should we remember?

Because of her unique role in the Valhalla rail disaster (specifically, the fact that she was solely responsible for causing it), Ellen Brody is getting much more attention than her victims. Lohud.com even refers to “six victims,” although I suppose that is technically accurate since Brody herself was a victim of her own inconceivable errors in judgment.

I understand that her friends and family want to remember the good things about her, and I would never deny them that right. But for them to say that she would not have taken any risks is to demonstrate the same commitment to objective truth as a ghetto mother screaming that her son is innocent in the face of incontrovertible DNA evidence to the contrary. To say such a thing detaches the event from its moral context and reduces it to an accident, a mere “happening,” something sad but unforeseeable. The fact of the matter is that had she survived the collision, she would almost certainly be charged with multiple counts of manslaughter and face numerous lawsuits for wrongful death. Legal culpability is society’s way of formally assigning moral culpability.

Everything I’ve read about Brody praises her for being a good wife, mother, and member of the community in general. A good “sport,” “fun,” etc. Those are all good qualities in a person, to be sure. But they’re not enough. The capacity to respond in emergencies and not lose one’s mind in the face of a potentially dangerous situation is at least as important as all of the foregoing combined. This aspect of personality is rarely tested, but when it is, the result gives a strong indication of that person’s character.

Ellen Brody’s positive attributes will be remembered by her friends and family, and that is enough. Unfortunately, her role in public life is that of a confused woman whose indescribably poor judgment got five other people killed. As a people, this is what we ought to focus on, because it keeps the event grounded in its moral context. If we must mourn the dead, let us mourn Robert Dirks, Walter Liedtke, Eric Vandercar, Joseph Nadol, and Aditya Tomar.

What should we remember?

The omnipresent danger

More details have emerged regarding the collision between an MTA commuter train and a Mercedes Benz SUV in Valhalla, New York this past Tuesday.

Ellen Brody, the driver of the SUV, made at least four extremely serious errors in judgment, all of which (with perhaps the exception of the first one) are utterly incomprehensible to me.

1) Stopping on the tracks in traffic. I can understand this error in the context of our perpetually distracted society that does not recognize the threats it faces. It is a major error but not outside the realm of comprehension.

2) Ignoring the audible bells and visible warning lights that precede the gates closing. This is totally beyond me. I have no idea how someone could fail to recognize these signals.

3) Getting out of the car to check for damage when she realized the barrier had struck her vehicle. This is impossible for me to imagine. From where she was, she certainly could have seen the barrier closing on the opposite side of the road, so she had to have known at this point that a train was approaching. Assuming I was in her position and had somehow reached this point, my instinctive reaction would be to immediately look up and down the tracks for a train. If an impact was imminent, my instinct would be to leave the vehicle and get off the tracks in order to save myself. If I felt I had sufficient time, I would put the vehicle in gear and take the quickest route off the tracks without any particular regard for physical property (other vehicles, barriers, etc.).

4) Casually getting back into the vehicle and wasting precious time rather than evacuating the area with the greatest humanly possible haste. After seeing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the barrier had closed on her car (which indicates that a train will be crossing in a matter of seconds), she got back into her vehicle and sat there for some time before pulling forward and being struck by the train.

Furthermore, there was obviously plenty of traffic in the area (traffic was backed up at an intersection past the grade crossing, which is why she was stopped on the tracks), and there are statements in the linked article from the man who was in the vehicle behind her. Why didn’t he get out of his car and command this idiotic woman to get out of the way of the train? Why didn’t he forcibly take control of her vehicle and move it out of the way while she was walking around looking at the damage? [Edit: these are not rhetorical questions; I am genuinely interested in what happened. To assign blame to the driver behind Brody would be purely speculative and serve no purpose.]

Here is Ellen Brody:

Ellen Brody: Harbinger of death

This is the woman who needlessly caused not only her own death, but the deaths of five innocents. This is not the case of a mere accident. To call it that without any further explanation strips this event of its moral implications. We do not know Brody’s exact state of mind in her final moments, but we don’t need to. What we know is sufficient to evaluate these events in a moral context. Brody, for whatever reason, was faced with imminent danger but failed to recognize it. This is not surprising, as most middle class whites have never faced imminent danger. Most of us live our lives completely insulated from all threats, natural and man-made, by the institutions of Western civilization. These luxuries certainly make us comfortable, but we have come to take them for granted. We’ve decayed into a people who are utterly incapable of decisive action at critical moments. White, affluent Ellen Brody fastening her seat belt in her Mercedes SUV, blissfully ignorant of the impending catastrophe staring her in the face, is the personification of that decay.

The omnipresent danger