Commentary Magazine

Amtrak and Our Indecent Political Culture

Americans have now had more than 48 hours to grieve about Tuesday night’s Amtrak crash outside of Philadelphia that took the lives of eight persons and injured more than 200 others. The cause of the accident is yet to be determined but the fact that the train was going more than 100 miles per hour — twice the speed limit — would seem to indicate it was the result of human error or negligence. Yet even before rescuers finished removing the bodies, talking heads and pundits on the left were blaming this tragedy on Republicans who refuse to adequately fund Amtrak. While the pushback against this particularly nasty example of specious argument has begun, the willingness of our political class to exploit this tragedy tells us just how low our political culture has sunk.

From the non-stop hysterics of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC to the more sober tone adopted by the New York Times editorial page, much of the mainstream media treated the story as an excuse to indict Congress on a charge of failing to support America’s crumbling infrastructure. Even those that weren’t, like Maddow, unashamed to blame the deaths in the crash on the GOP, took it as a given that if only the federal government had been willing to spend more on trains, lives would have been saved.

Over at National Review, both Ian Tuttle and Charles C.W. Cooke did a good job debunking this myth. Both are worth reading in full.

The first thing to remember is that if, as might well be the case, the crash was caused by a mistake made by Amtrak personnel, all the talk about aging infrastructure is so much bunk.

It also should be noted that Amtrak is a white elephant that has eaten up more than $40 billion in federal subsidies since its creation. Though its Northeast corridor line is a moneymaker, the rest of its trains generate little business and few passengers and drowns the corporation and the government in debt. It accounts for a fraction of a percent of all American passenger travel yet it costs the taxpayer a billion a year. It may be that the nation has an interest in maintaining the rail lines but that is a political question and not one that can be easily reduced to the emotional rants we’ve heard since Tuesday.

More to the point, even if we want to center the discussion about Amtrak on the need for more safety measures and infrastructure improvement, the fact remains the money has already been allocated for this purpose. Amtrak’s leadership just chose not to spend on it on the things that we are now told should be a national priority. That includes the “crash preventing” technology that the government has already mandated be implemented but which hasn’t been put into service because of logistical challenges rather than funding shortfalls.

Why then the insistence that somehow the crash must be blamed on Congressional allocations?

Part of it has to do with a liberal disease of the mind that causes some people to believe, against all empirical proof and the history of the last half-century of American governance, that spending money is the only solution to all of our problems. But, as Cooke notes, if we are really interested in passenger safety, we’d do better to spend more on those types of travel that produce most of the casualties on an annual basis (like motorcycles) rather than trains, which despite the rare spectacular accidents, are generally safe and account for a far smaller percentage of the travel that Americans undertake.

But attempts to reduce this issue to logic and the facts are really beside the point. The reason why people are blaming the Amtrak crash on their favorite GOP piñatas has nothing to do with their decisions or even the needs of the rail system. This tragedy became politicized because in our current 24/7 news cycle political media culture that’s what we do with everything.

Whether it is an insane person shooting schoolchildren with weapons that were obtained legally, a terrorist incident or a train crash, it’s now clear that there isn’t anything that can happen in America that can’t be reduced to a bout of finger pointing in which either liberals or conservatives will blame each other as the ultimate culprits. Liberals have made an art form of it as they’ve transformed every heart-rending shooting incident no matter how unrelated it might be to potential gun laws, as an excuse for a new debate about restricting gun sales. The same principle caused them to treat a speeding train as somehow the fault of miserly GOP legislators. Nor are conservatives immune to the same impulse. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once blamed the decision of a deranged woman to drown her children on liberal culture. Others on the right who reflexively attack Barack Obama for things he has nothing do with play the same game.

What seems to be lacking here is not just faulty judgment and the sort of weak partisan arguments on display when some pretend more money poured into the Amtrak sinkhole will prevent future accidents. Rather, it is an absence of a sense of proportion or shame that would, in a more civil political culture, inhibit even fierce partisans from exploiting tragedies that have nothing to do with the back and forth between Republicans and Democrats. Even worse, there seems to be a built-in incentive in terms of increased audiences for such persons to go over the top and accuse their political opponents of murder without even a strand of evidence or reasoned thought behind such statements.

What our talking heads and pundits need is a sort of moral version of the safety equipment that some tell us would stop trains from speeding even when their engineers are pressing on the accelerator. Some might call such a mechanism common decency.

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