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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Warning signs we must heed

Ignoring obvious red flags leads us deeper into dangers we could prevent.

A Sri Lankan woman grieves next to the

A Sri Lankan woman grieves next to the grave of her family member who died in an Easter Sunday church explosion in Katuwapitiya village in Negombo, Sri Lanka on Wednesday. Credit: AP / Eranga Jayawardena

The car breaks down on a remote stretch of road. The six teenagers inside begin to look for help.

As darkness falls, they come upon an isolated house. It’s big and old and kind of creepy. They walk up the cracked sidewalk to the front door. The tall weeds on the lawn are strewn with motley garbage. A broken gutter hangs haphazardly. A shadow fleets across an upstairs window.

No one answers the doorbell but the door itself is unlocked. So the teens go in.

And they always, always, pay dearly for not paying attention to signs of danger.

That cinematic trope has endless iterations and it animates all sorts of horror films. But it’s hard to say these movies are a form of escapism. Because they function as unerring metaphors for what we as humans increasingly seem to be — a species that often fails to heed warnings.

We’ve been spectacularly good lately at living down to that characterization.

In Sri Lanka, security officials ignored warnings of imminent suicide bombings. And hundreds of people were killed or injured in the horrendous Easter attacks on churches and hotels.

In Europe, calls to repair and protect thousands of historic buildings have long been downplayed or ignored. And Notre Dame cathedral became the latest treasure to suffer a devastating fire.

In Illinois, child welfare workers did not act upon numerous visual warnings of abuse in their repeated interactions with a 5-year-old boy. And he was found last week in a shallow grave, allegedly beaten to death by his parents.

In the United States, parents ignored warnings from health authorities about vaccinating their children against potentially deadly measles. And the disease, declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, has infected 695 people this year, a record though it’s only April, and quarantines are in place at two universities in Los Angeles.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and indictments warned of Russia’s direct and indirect meddling in the election of 2016 and others to come. And former Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen was told by acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney not to talk to President Donald Trump about preparing to safeguard the 2020 election.

YouTube executives were warned for years about viral videos on their platform that espoused hate or baseless conspiracy theories or anti-vaccination hogwash. And they rejected ideas to control that to keep growing and reaping profits, inaction that looks more like malpractice than a business decision.

Then there’s climate change, where we receive warning after unmistakable warning, from raging wildfires to more intense hurricanes, from rising seas to lengthy droughts, from record-setting temperatures to shrinking glaciers, from altered ocean currents to the latest measure, that Greenland’s ice melted nearly six times faster in the past decade than in the 1980s. And some of our leaders continue to ignore those signs, exacerbating every trend.

Why isn’t the warning that nearly half of Americans would find it difficult to cover an unexpected $400 cost a five-alarm fire for politicians of every stripe?

Why do we fail to take seriously warnings about looming extinctions of various species, to the point that we can’t do anything to reverse them?

Why don’t many of us seek help for the troubled young man with disturbing ideas?

Why do some of us ignore the pain in our chest or the spot on our arm, until it’s too late?

Whether it’s false bravado, willful blindness, genuine confusion, malignant inefficiency, sheer stupidity or political cravenness, we have to stop walking into that house. Because it’s killing us.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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