Do you remember the tornado that forever changed history in Joplin, Mo. in 2011—the one that claimed the lives of 161 people and destroyed the homes of countless more? Do you remember what you were wearing that day, or what you were doing when you heard the news? You probably don’t, but I do.
As a native of Parsons, Kan., I probably live considerably closer to where the tornado touched down than most people reading this column. Located a mere 60 miles from my home, Joplin holds a special place in my life. Because the biggest attraction my little town of 10,000 people boasts is a Super Walmart, my family and I took day trips to Joplin at least once a month to stock up on goods from Sam’s Club and window shop around Northpark Mall. (Glamorous, I know.) Countless memories and irreplaceable moments flood my mind when I think back to the time I spent in Joplin.
So it should come as no surprise that when I heard about the tragedy in Joplin, I realized that a part of my life had changed forever. I spent the subsequent days following the news and listening to stories of survival and despair. It seemed as though the entire nation felt Joplin’s pain. In this day and age of smart phones, Twitter, Facebook, Wi-Fi and countless other gadgets and networks, constant connectivity is a given. No matter where one lives, news of the tornado must’ve reached him within minutes of its touchdown in Missouri.
In his remarks at a memorial service held one week after the catastrophe, President Obama said “The cameras may leave. The spotlight may shift. But we will be with you every step of the way until Joplin is restored. We’re not going anywhere. That is not just my promise; that’s America’s promise.”
Like he predicted, the media soon moved on, and over time it seemed as though the American public and the government had, too. Sure, the federal government pledged to fund 90 percent of the debris removal efforts and allocate disaster assistance to survivors. But was that enough? As is the case with many large-scale disasters, response is immediate and strong at the onset, but wanes overtime. Recuperation takes more than a month, even more than a year. It’s an ongoing process, one that must happen even after the cameras leave and the spotlights shift.
A study conducted by Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California offers insight into this increasingly prevalent short-lived nature of concern. He found that constant exposure to social media and news updates—the norm in American society—can lead to desensitization. The fast-paced nature of status updates, 140-character tweets and news notifications strains the human emotional state. Stories and events receive little-to-no processing time in the individual’s mind before a new blast comes barreling through. Researchers worry that “violence and suffering become an endless show that allows indifference to gradually set in.”
As we approach the one-year anniversary of the deadliest tornado in the record in the United States, I can’t help but contemplate the state of our humanity. We live in a world where constant connectivity is not only possible but also expected. I can’t believe that this justifies or even necessitates our desensitization as a people. Life moves on and different disasters strike, but we must remain aware of the truth and significance of major world events. It’s easy to let information go in one ear and out the other as we reduce people and devastation into statistics and estimated costs. But we must remain human.
In March, the White House announced that the president would deliver the commencement address at Joplin High School on the eve of the tornado’s one-year anniversary in May. This address will be especially significant considering that the tornado obliterated the high school campus only one hour after the Class of 2011 completed its graduation ceremony.
The information age might have led to our desensitization as a people, but it did not render our hearts and souls useless. President Obama kept true to his words and followed through on his commitment to the city of Joplin. His promise shows us that there is still hope in the world—that human interaction and sympathy still triumph over technology and distant communication. As times change, so must we, but we should do so without sacrificing our humanity. We might be desensitized but we’re still human. We haven’t lost our capacity to empathize. It’s still there—we just have to take pause, sort through the influx of information and let ourselves be human.
Nicholas Winton, man who saved 669 Czhechoslavakian children destined for Nazi death camps is reunited with them half a century later.
After the war, Nicholas Winton didn’t tell anyone, not even his wife Grete about his wartime rescue efforts. In 1988, a half century later, Grete found a scrapbook from 1939 in their attic, with all the children’s photos, a complete list of names, a few letters from parents of the children to Winton and other documents. She finally learned the whole story.
— Ravi Zacharias, on the Newtorn Shooting