Let’s start with this excerpt from the Nature article:
Quote: “From when he was a young boy growing up in a house on Via Antinori in the medieval heart of this earthquake-prone Italian city, Vincenzo Vittorini remembers the ritual whenever the family felt a seismic tremor overnight. “My father was afraid of earthquakes, so whenever the ground shook, even a little, he would gather us and take us out of the house,” he says. “We would walk to a little piazza nearby, and the children we were four brothers and my mother would sleep in the car. My father would stand outside, smoking cigarettes with the other fathers, until morning.” That, he says, represented the age-old, cautionary “culture” of living in an earthquake zone.
Vittorini, a 48-year-old surgeon who has lived in L’Aquila all his life, will never forgive himself for breaking with that tradition on the night of 5 April 2009. After hundreds of low-level tremors over several months, L’Aquila shook with a strong, magnitude-3.9 tremor shortly before 11 p.m. on that Palm Sunday evening. Vittorini debated with his wife Claudia and his terrified nine-year-old daughter Fabrizia whether to spend the rest of the night outside. Swayed by what he describes as “anaesthetizing” public assurances by government officials that there was no imminent danger, and recalling scientific statements claiming that each shock diminished the potential for a major earthquake, he persuaded his family to remain in their apartment on Via Luigi Sturzo. All three of them were huddled together in the master bed when, at 3:32 a.m. on 6 April, a devastating magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck the city.
“It was like being in a blender,” Vittorini recalls. “It wasn’t a roar, it was a gigantic noise. And then darkness.” The apartment building, a structure of reinforced concrete constructed in 1962, instantly collapsed, and their third-floor apartment ended up in a jumble of wreckage several feet off the ground. Seven people were killed in the collapse of the building, including Vittorini’s wife and daughter; he was pulled from the rubble, injured but alive, six hours later. The earthquake claimed 309 lives in L’Aquila and several towns nearby, injured more than 1,500 people, destroyed some 20,000 buildings and left 65,000 people temporarily displaced.”
Now, in response to this terrible human tragedy, those very authorities who swayed the personal decisions of people like Vincenzo Vittorini have been found guilty of manslaughter. This has created huge waves around the world’s scientific and risk assessment community and sent a chill down the spine of every individual even remotely connected with the burden of making a public decision on risk.
No wonder. Six years in jail is no laughing matter. Nor is dying unnecessarily for that matter. But who is responsible? Where does the buck stop? Do we have a right to expect impeccably worded alerts and public warnings from the authorities we pay to issue them? Are we willing to bear the consequences? Do we have a right to hold them culpable when they fail to do so? Is this even a sensible approach?
What ever way you look at the Aquila tragedy, it throws up a huge number of complex issues, some of them probably intractable but I will revive the long slumbering body of political science I once studied and try to approach these issues, not from a seismologists’ or civil defence point of view but from the wider angle of political philosophy.
Ok, so shit happens. Catastrophes occur. Whenever you place something of value at risk you have what insurers call an exposure. (For some reason the concept of exposure always makes me think of being forced to go for a pee behind a rock on an alpine ski field in -23° temperatures, but that might be just me.)
We live in a world that seems to have only recently discovered the concept of risk aversion. In the old days, everyone smoked, drank copiously, jumped into a rusty hump of contorted metal called a car that didn’t even have seat-belts, forget about crumple zones and airbags, and hooned it off homewards, possibly slowing down for stop lights but not necessarily. As kids we were told to go play out on the road for a bit to give our parents some peace and quiet.
My, how things have changed. And, confronted by the huge tragedy of an unnecessary death, they have changed most certainly for the better. Now entire armies of engineers, scientists and mathemeticians are working for our benefit, carefully tweaking our systems and machines to reduce the risks we are exposed to.
Yet risks remain, particularly risks from natural hazards, like floods, storms, avalanches and, yes, earthquakes. These kind of risks will always be there. They are facts of life. There will always be earthquakes as long as we live on this planet. And, if we are truthful, a world completely devoid of risk would be a pretty bland and boring place.
Which brings us pretty quickly to the crux of this issue:
Does an individual have a right to choose his own risk exposure? Does an individual have a right to be protected by the government from risks (within the bounds of reason and budgets of course)? Does the government have a duty to protect its citizens with the resources at its disposal?
These are weighty questions and each individual will have their own answer. All I will try do here is outline the framework.
I. Does an individual have a right to choose his own risk exposure?
This first issue goes to the heart of social liberties. Generally, if you are a freedom loving individual, you would answer this in the affirmative. If you want to go base-jumping and are prepared to take the associated risk of tunneling through a couple of meters of granite when you fail, then you should be allowed to do this. If you want to smoke or inject a whole lot of harmful substances into your body, you should also be allowed (arguably) … but when your actions start posing a risk to others who don’t want to take this risk, then there are some good arguments that start limiting your individual freedoms.
Thus in terms of seismic hazard, if I want to build on a fault line, and am informed about the exposure, then who should stop me? However if I jump into the crater of an active volcano and then call the emergency services to get me out, do I have a right to be helped? If the consequences of my smoking burdens the public health system, should I pay for it? Etc.
II. Do I have a right to be protected by the government?
This is where it gets knotty. If you think you do, then you must very carefully delineate the scope of this protection for every right entails a corresponding duty on the other party (see III below). For example, if you think the government has a duty to protect you, you can’t complain when a SWAT term bursts in your door late at night and takes away your whiskey. So obviously, most of us would like limits. Indeed libertarians believe there is no such right or duty on the part of the government to do this. But this extreme might be a little simplistic too. Then we wouldn’t have road rules and I am not sure I would like to live with the resulting chaos. Especially when I think of GeoLoco and his big truck.
III. Does the government have a duty to protect its citizens (even against their will)
This is probably the knottiest of all. Should the government have the right to evacuate people from the danger zone in the face of a pending lateral blast? I guess most of us would say yes. After all, it is the government that has to clean up the resulting mess. Does the government have a duty to stop us drinking alcohol and smoking, driving over-powered cars and jumping off cliffs? hmm.. here I am not so sure. What is acceptable? What is not acceptable?
Implications for Aquila
Right, using the above very broad principles, let’s look at Aquila.
I think we can take it as given that everyone who lives in Aquila is aware of the seismic risk, apart from those who are too young or infirm to grasp the concept. So anyone who lives there is tacitly accepting the risk, even for their children and dependents. Moreover, there is enough information in the public domain about how to reduce your risk even in such areas: different methods of building, placing of furniture, etc. that an individual can actively choose to reduce his exposure. So the citizens there were aware of the risk, they actively took the risk, therefore they should bear at least some of the responsibility for the resulting tragedy, no? If they didn’t live there, it wouldn’t have happened.
Which leads us to this question: does the government have a duty to protect you, even when you actively choose to take these risks?
Right, this is where we quickly enter a push and pull battle over where to draw the line. Governments can install building codes. They can enforce demolition of at-risk buildings (the most beautiful brick buildings were demolished on our local campus in the 70s and replaced with horrible concrete bunkers). In brief, the government CAN do a lot. But MUST it do these things? Is this what we expect of government? Do we want to live in a moddle-coddled world where all risk has been eradicated by government decree? Are we willing to pay the price by renouncing the associated liberty?
At a minimum, one could argue, the government does have a duty to at least inform its citizens of the risks it is exposed to. There are good arguments for setting this as a minimum requirement on government action. Why? Well, for one, government has the resources. Secondly, it is not only in the individual’s interests, but it is in the collective public interest. Why have a collective institution (called government) if not for at least collating and identifying all those issues of relevance to the people? Thirdly, it is the best way that I can see of combining a maximum of individual liberty (informed risk-taking) with a maximum of government care (informing the risk-takers).
Whether this duty then extends to proactive measures on the part of the government to protect its citizens is a next-level issue that should be answered by the members making up that collective. In a modern democracy, this should be by democratic vote (though, obviously in reality, it is decided by endless committee meetings of bureaucrats working in the background). However, as past catastrohphes have already indicated (and Aquila is no exception), the extent of government intervention should be clearly formulated along a clear set of principles. This serves not only as a guide for action in the event of a crisis for the decision-makers, it also serves to raise public awareness and introduce this thorny issue to the public domain, where it belongs: How much intervention do we expect of our government? The results should then be formulated in a brief set of principles that even the courts could then refer to in issues like Aquila.
As it now appears, the, what I would term, minimum duty to inform the public, is where the scientific committee meeting in Aquila failed.
Whether this failure though is tantamount to manslaughter is highly dubious. In the end that is something each jurisdiction will have to decide but this decision seems to have a strong whiff of populism to it.
Ironically, at the same time, the Italian government is cutting the funding of other public institutes aimed precisely at informing the public of imminent risks. This is tragic to say the least and the public inertia is just one consequence of generations of government officials failing to meet their basic
duties. Sad. Very sad indeed.
Disclaimer: I am not a professional in any of these matters in any form whatsoever. All the above is my sole private opinion expressed here for the sole purpose of stimulating debate and for no other purpose whatsover.