Ted Stevens has died at age 86, and the news is getting a lot of play this afternoon because of the very Alaskan cause of death: a plane crash. Stevens reportedly had a premonition that he would die in such a manner, and at the same time was instrumental in keeping the regulations concerning flying in Alaska as light as possible.
The site of the crash — the small town of Aleknagik — is unreachable by road from Anchorage or from anywhere else, really, unless you’re driving from Dillingham. Alaska has precious few roads, and most of the state can be reached only by small planes, which are by their nature pretty dangerous things. But if you’re going to do the whole Alaska thing — and Stevens has been called the “Alaskan of the Century” — then you’re going to have to come to terms with the danger and make peace with the fact that you might end up in a crash.
In other words, this crash is not a sign that there was any irony in Stevens’s opposition to flight-safety rules in Alaska, and nor is it a sign that such rules need to be introduced or tightened up. It’s just symptomatic of what the NYT calls “a fate that is not unknown to many in Alaska”. A free country is one in which informed individuals can and should be allowed to take life-threatening risks, including smoking and drinking and driving cars. In Alaska, many people regularly take the risks associated with flying in small planes, largely because without those risks, much life in the state would become unlivable.
Stevens was a great defender and proponent of the Alaskan way of life. It’s not for everybody. Indeed, Alaska has the smallest population of any of the 50 states*, with a population roughly a quarter that of Brooklyn. Those who do choose to live and settle in Alaska are a pretty unique and special breed, and the risks they take are very different to those familiar to most of the rest of us. That’s part of being Alaskan.
It’s tragic that a plane crash has killed Senator Stevens. But it’s also something he was well aware could happen any day, and in a weird way it’s a fitting way for this individualist to go. He certainly wouldn’t have wanted any government meddling to constrain his ability to die this way.
Update: Apologies if there are difficulties commenting on this post. Working on it. And I’m informed that Alaska is not the least populous state, Wyoming is. But they’re not far apart.
Update 2: James Fallows is, predictably, the go-to guy on this subject.