Tragedy can strike anyone

A three-year-old boy died inside a hot car in Monroe County, Tenn. Monday afternoon, reigniting the annual debate over criminal responsibility in such cases.

The story had hardly broken before the boy’s family was being tried on social media. Comments such as, “His parents should go to prison for life!” and “Lock them up in a hot car the same way they did him!” and “Obviously they’re on meth!!” were common.

This rush to judgment, before the facts of the case were even known, is proof enough that our society’s reaction to such tragedies will always be blanket condemnation.

This case isn’t a typical example, where a child is forgotten inside a parked car. In this case, the guardian — his grandmother — was mowing and left the boy and other children in the care of a 15-year-old. The boy wandered off and locked himself inside the car, then couldn’t figure out how to get out.

It’s a tragedy, but sometimes these things are that and that alone: tragedies. Every time they arise, there are those who will take to their soapbox to proclaim that there’s no justification for it, that it should never happen to any parent who’s vigilant. And maybe it shouldn’t. But it does. And if you think it can’t happen to you, think again.

Twelve years ago this month, I found out just how easily it can happen. It was a scorching hot July day, one of those days where the humidity hovers near 100 percent and the temperature has reached 90 almost before the sun has dried the morning dew from the grass.

It was my day to drop our twins off at the sitter. It was also a critical deadline day at work. I had been up too late the night before and my mind was preoccupied by work that morning as I jumped into the truck and hurried to the office, late as usual.

A few minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot at our office, shut off the engine and opened the door to get out of the truck. Then I looked down and saw the kids asleep in their carseats and it dawned on me for the first time that I had forgotten to drop them off at the sitter’s.

I could just as easily have shut the door and walked into the office. I almost did.

But that isn’t the entire story.

Here’s the thing: I was driving a standard cab pickup truck that morning. The kids were strapped in on the same bench seat I was sitting on. I had driven to work with my right arm resting on one of the carseats. And somehow, someway, for reasons I can’t explain, I completely forgot about them. That’s how preoccupied my mind was in that moment.

If I had been driving any other vehicle that morning — an extended cab pickup, an SUV, a car — there is no doubt how this story would’ve ended. None. Because the kids wouldn’t have been in the front seat, and I wouldn’t have just happened to glance over and see them as I started to exit the vehicle. They would’ve been tucked away in the back seat, out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

It really can happen that easily, and that quickly.

It’s easy to criticize and condemn, especially in social media’s echo chamber. With our Facebook friends providing a virtual amen corner, we can castigate without prejudice. Besides, assigning blame always makes us feel better about tragedy. No one wants to think about a child dying a slow, excruciating death in a hot car, so when we can attach blame to a neglectful parent who’s strung out on drugs, it makes us feel better about it.

But sometimes it’s best to empathize, to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes before we rush to judgment. Because tragedy is no respecter of persons. It doesn’t discriminate between the neglectful, worthless parents and the ones who simply suffer a momentary lapse of judgment.

Of course some of these hot car child deaths are the result of wanton negligence. Sometimes they’re even the result of criminal intent. But they’re almost always unfortunate tragedies that destroy families in the cruelest way imaginable.

Sending a Monroe County grandmother to prison because she left her grandson in the care of a 15-year-old solves nothing. It isn’t going to bring that child back. It isn’t going to make her feel any worse. It isn’t going to help that family. If it makes you feel better to hop on your high horse in a self-righteous tirade about how there’s no excuse for it, that’s your prerogative. But remember this: But for the grace of God, you could find yourself in the same situation.

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