Death Tolls

The poet John Donne famously wrote ‘do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ It’s a line that echoes as death tolls keep rising. On October 29, 2004 The New York Times reported the conservative estimate of Iraqis killed since our invasion at 100,000, half of them women and children killed in airstrikes. 100,000 Iraqis is one third the number of civilians Saddam Hussein is accused of killing in a period of 22 years. How do we compute 100,000 Iraqis? How do they compare with 3,000 Americans killed in Osama Bin Laden’s 9/11 airstrike, or with 15 Palestinians killed by Israeli rockets in Gaza?

How do we measure numbers of dead? Does their value depend on nationality or religion or race? Are my people worth more than your people, my children more precious than others’?

The weight of numbers is numbing and arguable. The human number is one.
That is the meaning of Donne’s great line. Every life counts: we are diminished by every death.

This no doubt seems sentimental to the sacrificially inclined-those willing to send men and women to fight for freedom or democracy or Allah or Israel. Unlike Christ who said you should lay down your own life for another, leaders like Bush and Bin Laden and Sharon lay down others’ lives. Which of them give themselves for their causes? Saddam Hussein thumped his chest and brandished his rifle and threatened to die before defeat from the enemy; and he crawled pleading from a hole. George Bush now boasts and brandishes Saddam’s gun in the White House oval office.

Mayans see human life bound as a blanket, woven, unwoven, rewoven through time. Every day in every moment people die and are born and we can’t comprehend or fathom or care. We barely manage caring for ourselves and families; our energies and reach are small. Nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love tend to be muted by the furies of war. We empathize little unless we or someone we know is in the fury, or unless we press to imagine and identify. Some who protest abortion do empathetically identify as single-celled possibilities.

But tolls are totals, abstract sums, by which we don’t imagine a burning child, a woman bleeding and giving birth and dying at a checkpoint, a scared soldier nervously shooting a little girl’s head off in a car he fears rigged with explosives.

Death tolls announce not thee or me, but a number which is never we.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu


More articles by:

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

March 21, 2018
Paul Street
Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?
Mel Goodman
The Great Myth of the So-Called “Adults in the Room”
Chris Floyd
Stumbling Blocks: Tim Kaine and the Bipartisan Abettors of Atrocity
Eric Draitser
The Political Repression of the Radical Left in Crimea
Patrick Cockburn
Erdogan Threatens Wider War Against the Kurds
John Steppling
It is Us
Thomas Knapp
Death Penalty for Drug Dealers? Be Careful What You Wish for, President Trump
Manuel García, Jr.
Why I Am Leftist (Vietnam War)
Isaac Christiansen
A Left Critique of Russiagate
Howard Gregory
The Unemployment Rate is an Inadequate Reporter of U.S. Economic Health
Ramzy Baroud
Who Wants to Kill Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah?
Roy Morrison
Trouble Ahead: The Trump Administration at Home and Abroad
Roger Hayden
Too Many Dead Grizzlies
George Wuerthner
The Lessons of the Battle to Save the Ancient Forests of French Pete
Binoy Kampmark
Fictional Free Trade and Permanent Protectionism: Donald Trump’s Economic Orthodoxy
Rivera Sun
Think Outside the Protest Box
March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
John Pilger
Skripal Case: a Carefully-Constructed Drama?
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography