Learning to Count the Dead
Thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed or badly wounded by U.S. and British bombs and guns. Thousands. Go up to www.iraqbodycount.net and see for yourself the number of civilians who have been killed.
Here’s the problem: None of us living in the United States really know how to think about numbers. Not only are we one of the most innumerate advanced societies on Earth, we are also it appears at best completely indifferent to numbers. Especially when the numbers refer to the dead and injured people who arrive at that grave state by our hand.
Thousands. Teenagers: that’s EVERYONE in your high school and then some. Small Towners: that’s EVERYONE in your town. White collar workers: that’s EVERYONE in your pretty-big and pretty-profitable company.
Yesterday, U.S. Marines shot up an automobile filled with Iraqi civilians in the Holy city of Najaf. 7 people died and 2 were injured-9 people in all. There was poll on CNN.com asking people whether it was a justified shooting given the fact that the automobile did not stop at a U.S. military checkpoint. When I voted "No," that it was not justified, I found out that 81% of polled people disagreed with me. Apparently, it is therefore justified. But then what does the number 9 really mean? Family-oriented people: That’s your ENTIRE family + your Parents and siblings.
The New York Times covered this story; the headline was "Failing to Heed Warning, 7 Iraqi Women and Children Die." Note the spin in the headline. "Failing to Heed Warning.."- clearly the Iraqis did something wrong. They paid the price it seems. "7 Iraqi Women and Children Die." Die? Die is a passive construction which implies that, lo and behold, these people simply stopped living. "Were Killed" would be a more appropriate and correct way of re-telling what happened. Kill is an action word and the action always has an "object" –in this case people. But then 7 people isn’t that large a number. Stuff like this happens to people we are liberating, doesn’t it?
When we read that the sanctions we have imposed on the Iraqi people are responsible for the deaths of 1.2 Million people, do any of us really stop and think about what this means? That’s EVERYONE is a good-sized city. EVERYONE.
Are we really such an indifferent, callous people? Have we really lost all touch with our humanity? Do the sheer numbers befuddle us to such an extent that we equate 1 of OUR lives with hundreds, thousands, of THEIR lives?
Or is there something left to be reconciled when we say at once that all people are equal but insist that one of us for all intents and purposes, for all matters of sorrow, for everything that matters counts more than 25 million Iraqis?
And if we conclude that there is something left to be reconciled, that what we say and what we do diverge radically, that we have shown no humanity to numbers of people we can’t even begin to imagine, that we spin all facts in our favor and to the misfortune of others, then elemental decency suggests that we stop waging wars, we stop killing people, and we learn to think of Iraqis as people just like us.
We need to learn to count. Only then will we understand the enormity of our crimes.
ROMI MAHAJAN lives in Seattle and can be reached at:
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