Frankly, I try not to read about airplane accidents while I am in the air. So I was not tickled to learn about the precipitous plunge of an L1011 over the Bahamas, while I was buckled into the seat of a 727 somewhere over Illinois.
I have quite enough paranoia without worrying about engines that shut down and a plane that drops like a stone for several miles. I am. you see, still working off my DC10 phobia. I can't even bear chatty pilots who conduct guided tours from the cockpit when they should be watching the instrument panel.
Still, there was something familiar about this particular near-catastrophe. For want of three small O-rings, an L1011 was nearly lost. For want of three oil seals, a jumbo jet and 172 persons almost ditched in the ocean.
As the Eastern Airlines officials explained in public hearings in Miami this week, the fate of the fanciest technology came down (almost literally) to two maintenance men who hadn't done their jobs properly. A planeload of lives was in the hands of humans who simply hadn't read the company memos about the new procedures. Anybody could make a mistake.
What we have here, it seems to me, is a thoroughly modern mortality tale. Call it "The O-Ring Syndrome."
Back in the 17th century, when George Herbert first reported about the battle that was lost for want of a nail, it was a rare event. Herbert was writing in a decentralized, rural economy about people who were relatively independent. They only got together to go to war.
Today you don't have to be in battle to have your life hang on the work of some stranger. You can be riding in a plane or walking down the street or drinking a glass of water. At any moment when a lot of lives are at the mercy of a few, they may be suffering from the O-Ring Syndrome.
The O-Ring Syndrome was, for example, in full swing at Three Mile Island, when a near-catastrophe was caused by, among other things, valves left open by maintenance men. It was in operation at Times Beach, where a single waste hauler sprayed the streets with dioxin to keep the dust down.
It was evident even when the Tylenol Murderer was lacing the medicine bottles of Chicago. One person's evil intention, after all, can be as disastrous as another's accident. An unknown crazy killed seven persons and nearly killed the product as well.
It's not that the rate of human error or malevolence is any greater today than it ever was. But the instruments are more powerful, and we are more easily targeted.
A hundred years ago, when someone didn't attach a carriage wheel properly, the lives of a half-dozen people were threatened. Today when someone screws up an L1011, up to 300 lives can be lost, and when someone sprays a street of one small town, 2,500 lives are affected.
The potential for disaster in mass transit, mass production, mass destruction, has grown geometrically. We are much more vulnerable to the single computer byte gone awry and the sole terrorist gone mad. The more centralized our world, the easier it is to sabotage. The more powerful our weapons, the more dangerous.
Our very survival on Earth depends on the people who keep military computers running. Somewhere, I am sure, there is an O-Ring on a nuclear missile.
We deal with this vulnerability, with a safety mania. We buckle up. We hold hearings. We issue instructions. We demand standards. When a single person adds cyanide to Tylenol, we counter with a billion safety packages. We try to match each anxiety with a code of protections in some escalating cycle.
As the certified owner of a pair of white knuckles, I know how we comfort ourselves with safety notices. The more powerless we feel in any situation, the more we long to believe in the competence of the people or technology in control.
By now, I am sure there isn't a maintenance worker in the business who isn't checking the oil seals. But the rest of us are stuck here, in the age of the O-Rings, with all the shaky symptoms of The Syndrome.