Tuesday, December 30, 2003

At Year's End: The Statistics of Death

How can we bring this year to an end without thinking of how many of our fellow human beings lost their lives through the violence of conflict and, in the closing days, a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions.  We'll probably never know the final count of either since the casualties of powerful bombs and earthquakes are often vaporized into nothingness; off the statistical radar.  And what of those statistics?  Statistics shelter us from any kind of personal feeling or involvement — great neutralizers of information.  The fact is, that we can't begin to fathom thousands of dead. 

When someone we know dies, the impact is felt personally.  We understand an individual who was part of our life is gone, forever.  Funerals of loved ones provide closure, the first step toward healing.  But impersonal death, statistical death, provides neither a sense of individual loss nor, absent some public effort, closure.  Statistical death is someone else's problem.  In our scheme of things, it doesn't have much impact.  That kind of dispassion in a society is dangerous, especially if one is concerned about stopping the unending cycle of violence that marks our contemporary scene.  To bring about change, the community has to individualize the loss and has to grieve.  The Italians understood that when their country stood still to honor their brave young soldiers who died in Iraq.  Japan did the same and so did our principal partner "of the willing", Great Britain.  Not so in this great democracy.

We have had no national grieving.  Any grieving has been limited to the families of the fallen and a few moving tributes of isolated media like The News Hour (PBS) which ends many evening broadcasts with the photos, names and, most poignantly, ages of those recently killed.  We can't grieve publicly because the Administration has forbidden coverage of the bodies being brought back home.  Somehow it thinks "out of site will be out of mind," a crass cover-up of the real price of war in which most of the media is a willing and culpable co-conspirator.  So we ask these young people to go off to war, volunteers and conscripted Reservists, and we don't have the decency to say a public thank you to them and their families when their lives are cut short.  We wear flags on our lapels that brag patriotism and we dishonor the greatest patriots of all by hiding their individuality from the public.  Speak about dehumanizing acts.

So I enter 2004 with a great deal of sadness about our losses, about the lives cut short in a War of questionable origin.  I enter with a feeling of frustration.  It's been a horrendous time for the world and for the country which I love deeply.  Thousands of individuals are gone and each of their families will never be the same without them.  I've known parents who lost children from disease.  None of them ever recovered.  I think of them when the statistics flash across the screen.  Perhaps we can find a way out.  Being an essentially optimistic person, I know we can.  I also know it's ultimately up to us and I ask myself (and you) what are we going to do about it?  Time is running out.

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