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Death Tolls and Partisan Blinders

What do hurricanes and police shootings have in common? Nothing, except in our polarized political culture.

David French has an excellent piece in National Review explaining why he’s changing the way he writes about police shootings. Rather than dilute his work by trying to summarize it here, I urge you to read it for yourself. The salient point that stuck with me was that we are too quick to interpret the data around police shootings, particularly police shootings of black men, through a partisan filter.

This morning, President Trump declared, in a Tweet, that the revised Puerto Rico death toll from Hurricane Maria was an attempt by Democrats to make him look bad. If you’re a Trump supporter your response is probably “Of course he did!”. If you’re not a Trump supporter, your response is probably: “Of course he did!” The latter exclamation, though, is heavily accented with exasperation and eyerolls.

Keep in mind, though, French’s exhortation to review the facts as removed as possible from our inherent bias.

It is entirely possible to believe that Democrats and some of their media friends are bringing up the Puerto Rico death toll to cast the President in a bad light. Of course the Democrats want to make the President look bad. They want to win in mid-term elections and the easiest way to win an election is to make your opponent out to be an evil monster. Trump supporters have every right to question the motives of those bringing up the death toll a year later.

It is also entirely possible to believe that the President actually believes that the new estimates of 2,975 dead following the storm are, in fact, made up. He’s not a President exactly enamored of facts or hard truths. He probably thinks he, and by extension the federal government, did a bang-up job helping out those beleaguered islanders.

Both of those assertions can be—no, are—true at the same time. What Americans should be doing is examining the data for themselves. That the Democrats are hyping the numbers for partisan gain doesn’t rule out that nearly 3000 Americans died in, or in the months following, a catastrophic natural disaster. Just as there is no “open season” on black men by American police forces, there is no denying that police shootings prior to 2015 were grossly under-reported and that too many bad cops end up acquitted (or not even tried) by local justice systems.

To refuse to see that every person unjustly shot by police forces is a tragedy for that person’s loved ones is just as heinous as believing that all, or even a majority of, police officers are trigger-happy racists. Don’t roll your eyes at the Puerto Rico tragedy because the message is coming from Democrats, but don’t think that all FEMA employees are fact-adverse paranoid egomaniacs.

Refusing to believe the revised death toll because it included people who died months after the storm isn’t helping, either. The majority of mainland Americans have no idea what it means to have an insular society. When Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi, response times were criticized for being slow, but there were available airstrips, roads, and emergency services to speed the recovery. Puerto Rico had none of those things. Power was out for three or more months on a majority of the island. Some 11% of residents still do not have power, a year after the storm. Three or more months with no power, and no way to just pack up refugees and move them to areas with power. That means no power for life support machines, refrigeration, waste treatment facilities, water purification, homes, or grocery stores. If anything, it is a wonder more people didn’t die. Those are legitimately classified as storm deaths. They are far more horrifying in that they were long, slow, and inevitable. Trump is absolutely wrong in saying these numbers are lies. To blame the President for every one of those deaths is also wrong.

We are so busy either ignoring the facts or focusing on the other-side’s refutation of the facts that we fail to learn from the facts. You cannot prevent a repeat of the Puerto Rico disaster if you think only 60 people died. You also cannot prevent a repeat if you lay the blame for every death at the feet of the President. We cannot be better at caring for our fellow man if we cannot be bothered to check our blindspots. The next time you’re tempted to lash out a columnist reporting on un-just police shootings, or the FEMA worker pointing out why aid was so long in coming for hurricane victims, please stop. Take a deep breath. Examine the data, listen to the people involved, and then work to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

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