As I write these words, news reports out of Blacksburg, Va., say that more than 30 people have been shot to death on the campus of Virginia Tech, and that the toll could go higher.
The university’s president describes the incident as a “tragedy of monumental proportions,” and of course he’s right. For the next few days the media will be full of stories about why such things happen, what can be done to avoid them, if “we’re really safe,” etc.
Stalin is supposed to have remarked that while one death is a tragedy, a million is merely a statistic. That is a brutal and morally revolting claim, but like many such observations it has a grain of truth.
Consider the Blacksburg massacre in the context of what happens every day in Iraq.
The United Nations reports that about 100 civilians a day were shot, blown up, tortured to death or otherwise murdered in Iraqi civil war violence in 2006. A Johns Hopkins study estimates the true toll in civilian killings may be three or four times higher.
But let’s use the more conservative estimate for purposes of comparison. One way of making that comparison would be to say that Iraq is currently enduring something equivalent to three Blacksburg massacres every single day of the year. But this comparison doesn’t take into account that the population of Iraq is about 12 times smaller than that of the United States.
If we take that difference into account, we might say the Iraqi civil war is producing the equivalent of 35 Blacksburg massacres a day, seven days per week, 365 days per year.
Naturally, the human mind has various strategies for resisting such comparisons. The most common is simply not to think about the issue. Iraq is far away, the people speak an incomprehensible language, worship what to most Americans is a strange God, and, in general, seem to inhabit a different universe — one in which, perhaps, having something like 35 Blacksburg massacres taking place every day doesn’t seem like a form of unendurable madness. (I’m just old enough to remember claims during the Vietnam War that Asians “don’t think about death the way we do.”)
Another is to claim it isn’t really happening. Attempts by war supporters to debunk the Johns Hopkins study — which suggests that the equivalent of as many as 140 Blacksburg massacres per day is happening in Iraq — had some of this quality (as if 35 massacres per day, or, for that matter, three, was somehow not that big a deal).
The most common strategy of all is to rationalize the fundamentally indescribable horror of something like a civil war by claiming that it’s all still somehow worth it — that the Iraqi people are now “free,” and are “obviously” better off than they were under the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein.
For if this isn’t true, then all of us as Americans are in some way complicit in that unimaginable horror, a horror of an almost incomprehensibly greater magnitude than those deaths in Blacksburg.
To say this isn’t in any way to minimize the horror and tragedy of Blacksburg, or to claim that we put too much value on the lives of those who are close to us. Rather, it’s to say that we put too little value on the lives of those who are far from us — including the lives of our soldiers, who are killed and maimed every day as they try to carry out an apparently impossible mission in the midst of a human catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
Nor is it to say that leaving Iraq would grant us absolution from the even greater horrors that may unleash. On my way to work this morning I saw the following message scrawled on an alley wall: “If we deserved salvation, we wouldn’t need it.”
–PAUL F. CAMPOS
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)