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.