Robert B. Simpson: Bunker bile

April 21, 2013 

You may have heard the other day about the toddler in Florida who lost her legs when run over by a riding lawn mower. Or you may not have heard, given the steady stream of disasters and tragedies crowding the news media.

While initial reports were confused and contradictory, the basic facts seem to be that the child ran out and apparently slipped and fell under the mower, unseen by her father, who was operating it. The mower blades chopped up her lower legs sufficiently to require amputation, as well as damaging one hand severely. The child was airlifted to a hospital. The parents, both hysterical, had to be treated for excessive stress.

In an effort to learn more details after hearing the first reports, I scrolled through a number of on-line publications. And there, first reading the actual report and then scanning what other readers had to say, I came face to face with the same sickening, festering mess I find almost every time I make the mistake of viewing reader comments. Moderated only slightly by an occasional temperate, compassionate statement, the mass of comments were an insulting, insensitive, crude spewing of hatred, a sort of projectile vomiting of venom and rage. Based only upon the first shaky, sketchy reports and their own imaginations, these readers leaped into the pit and began hurling bitter accusations at the hapless and stunned parents without pity. "Rednecks!" some raged. "What idiots. How could anybody let a child out around an operating mower?" others wondered, without knowing if the child had slipped out the door while her mother was distracted, had fainted, or was grabbing another child from an even more immediate danger.

When I was 11, a boy my age and his brother, two years younger, lived on a tobacco farm a few miles away. One day when their parents were elsewhere on the farm, they came home from school and began playing with their father's loaded shotgun. The older boy fired the gun and shattered the younger brother's leg. It was amputated just below the hip.

Farm homes with loaded guns in them were probably more the rule than the exception in our community at that time. I grew up with a loaded shotgun always in the house, and I wouldn't have touched it on a bet. So it never occurred to me to think anyone was to blame other than the two boys, who made a tragic error in judgment. Nor did I ever hear an adult express anything other than sympathy for both boys and their parents, except for expressions of amazement at how soon the younger boy was springing around on one leg, outrunning other kids in the churchyard on Sundays.

If we'd had the Internet in those days, maybe some would have felt compelled to snarl insults from behind a cowardly shield of anonymity. But I'd like to think not.

The parents of the gravely injured child in Florida will likely neither read nor hear the cruel slurs of their fellow citizens, of course. That's a blessing, because they have enough pain in their lives right now. But the verbal sewage slung with such apparent glee is indicative of a disturbing characteristic of too many of our fellow citizens. It reflects, in my opinion, an un-American desire to attack those not in a position to strike back, and to do so on the basis of limited or no knowledge. It shows at best a lack of class and at worst a serious character defect.

If these folks are representative of what our country is becoming, we have more to worry about than mere terrorists.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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