. . . Bad judgment is just a human failing

July 22, 1999|By Andrew Ratner

THE FIRST, almost universal, reaction to the news of another tragedy striking the Kennedy family was pained disbelief. That gut-level sense led, for many, to a second, less sympathetic response: Why did John F. Kennedy Jr. do it?

Why did he -- a relatively inexperienced pilot not licensed for instrument landings -- attempt a nighttime flight complicated by haze that would give even seasoned pilots pause? Why did he put himself and loved ones -- his wife and sister-in-law -- at risk? Did he allow the famous Kennedy machismo to obscure his better sense?

If he did, it only reaffirms that John -- handsome, articulate, smart, charmed from birth yet apparently down to earth -- was simply as human as the rest of us.

Many of the people who question Mr. Kennedy's judgment have to admit to practicing poor judgment themselves on occasion.

While few of us have piloted an airplane, many people have driven an automobile when they were too tired. After surviving such an experience unscathed, we ask ourselves, typically, "Why did I ever try that?"

About 16,000 people die each year because someone drank too much alcohol before driving. Almost that many die because someone was driving too fast for road conditions.

Over indulging in alcohol, of course, leads to many fatalities. In the 5,000 fatal pedestrian accidents in the nation in 1997, the victims were twice as likely to be intoxicated as the drivers who struck them.

But people don't need alcohol or drugs to be careless or foolish or brash.

We're bombarded with warnings: don't smoke in bed, don't swim in rough surf, don't climb an unsecured ladder, don't stick hands in machinery, buckle up in a car, wear a life jacket in a boat. Yet every year brings reports of grown-ups who perish as a result of ignoring such warnings.

A month ago, Mr. Kennedy's cousin, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was criticized for her own harsh, hasty, public wish to pursue the toughest punishment possible for a young truck driver whose cargo toppled a footbridge across the Beltway, killing a motorist behind him and badly injuring three others.

"Given her family's history, she must understand that sometimes accidents happen," a letter to The Sun said.

Similarly, all those now casting blame on Mr. Kennedy should recognize that it's not so rare for human beings to put themselves and those they love in harm's way -- even if they don't do it as spectacularly as he apparently did.

Andrew Ratner is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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