Keep those questions coming

Opinions - October 19th, 2001
Robert J. Collins

by Robert J. Collins

I’ve always paid more attention to questions than answers. (You haven’t? Why?) It just seems that so much more is revealed in the asking part than in the response part.

Think back to multiple choice questions in school. One could get pretty far up the academic ladder by merely recognizing the intent of the questioner. The “square root” answer in a math quiz does not fit as an answer in a horticultural exam. The answer, as Descartes once said, is in the question.

Translated to today’s situation, I was impressed by a question asked by a young media lady from Japan who was roaming with a micro­phone up and down the line of shocked, grieving relatives who were standing amidst the rubble created by the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings in New York. Most of the people were clutching photos of missing loved ones. All of them were on the brink of emotional devastation. It was obviously too big, and too horrible, to comprehend.

“How do you think about ter­rorism?” the young media lady from Japan asked these people. I screamed. My wife—this was the middle of the night—joined me and stated in her lovely fashion that I as usual must have misunderstood something.

A couple minutes later, on a different channel, a man approached a similar group of totally distraught individuals and asked the exact same question. “How do you think about terrorism?”

Is there a cog missing here? How can anyone even conceive of that question in those circum­stances? Do the questioners even understand what happened? Is this a movie? Hello?

Not to be outdone by Japanese colleagues, a U.S. reporter went up to Boston to interview a lady whose husband had not made the flight and therefore missed his chance to fly head-on into a New York sky­scraper. Bouncing a baby on her hip, the lady listened to the reporter’s question. It took her a long time to answer—not, I’m sure, because of uncertainty as to what the answer would be—but because the question was completely off-the-wall. The reporter had asked: “Are you glad your husband missed the plane?”

Even I was asked one of those questions. An editor of a New York newspaper, admittedly quite soon after the events occurred, asked me “if anyone in Japan noticed the acts of terrorism in the U.S.?” (And this after staying up all night watching coverage on local TV—including the “How do you think about ter­rorism?” question.)

My favorite question occurred on the morning after the first bombing raid on presumed head­quarters of the bad guys in Afghanistan. The U.S. Secretary of Defense was going through the motions of replying to reporters at a press conference. He was giving away precious little information. (These guys must go to school to learn how to talk a lot but say, in effect, nothing. Like politicians.)

The man had just talked in general about bombers and tons of devastation delivered with pin­point accuracy over the last several hours. Then, almost as an after­thought, he mentioned two or three planeloads of emergency supplies being dropped in the envi­rons for common civilians—like rocketry afterbirth.

My question at this point would have been about the nature of those survival supplies. We should know, if only to get ready to duck, if we’re shipping razor blades and Spam.

But no. In between discussions of explosions and military goals, one reporter got her question in. She sounded worried. Real worried. I mean, seriously concerned. She sounded as if even greater issues were involved.

“How,” she asked the U.S. Sec­retary of Defense, “can we be cer­tain that the survival supplies don’t injure civilians by landing on their heads?”

Aha. The U.S. Secretary of Defense didn’t have an answer. Neither do I. But it is—given all that’s gone on—an interesting question.