MEASURING A TRAGEDY

10 05 2007

Is everything connected?  Is there a link between a butterfly in Mexico and a tornado in Kansas?  Is there a connection between the mounting tension of the gathering showdown over misuse of the US Department of Justice and Seung-Hui Cho’s decision that he just couldn’t take any more?

I don’t know, although my poor paranoid’s almanac response when I first heard the news that the Gonzalez hearing had been postponed on account of Virginia Tech was “Manchurian Candidate!  Distraction!”  I think I was wrong about that part—but if that were true, it would be less troubling than the truth revealed by the case of the late Mr. Cho, who apparently has been on the same trajectory most of his life.  The troubling truth is that nobody knew him well enough.  We were all just too busy to really sit down with the five-year old, the eight-year old, the twelve-year old, the sixteen-year old, the twenty-year old Seung-Hui Cho and really get to the bottom of what was going on inside him.  Maybe I’m just as weird in my way for blaming society as Jerry Falwell is in his, but I believe that in a saner, less distracted and preoccupied society, this tragedy would never have happened.

And sure, stricter gun laws might help.  Let’s face it, the only reason pistols exist is to hurt or kill other human beings.  Nobody hunts with a pistol, y’know?  Pistols, like coal-fired power plants, shouldn’t just be heavily restricted, they should be shut down entirely.  They should not be manufactured. All existing pistols should be melted down.  Turned into frames for solar panels, or bicycles.  No more pistol ammunition—without ammo, a pistol is just a funny-shaped club.  And sure, some crazy somebody somewhere will keep producing them somehow—I mean, I hear you can still get LSD if you know where to look, and that’s been illegal and heavily suppressed for forty years now.  But there is just no reason for pistols to be commercially manufactured, any more than cigarettes.

How much safer would this make us?  How about thirty times safer?  In England, where handgun ownership has been illegal for ten years, there is one firearm death per million people annually.  In the US, there are thirty handgun deaths per million people every year—so Mr. Cho’s little spree accounted for only about one third of one percent of the firearm deaths in the US this year—what’s everybody so upset for?

Meanwhile, thirty-two people are dead and twenty-five injured, and it’s a tragedy for families,friends, and survivors–and I can certainly understand that.  In all my nearly sixty years of life, no one close to me has been murdered.  I feel very lucky to live in such a safe part of the world.

It’s when I start looking at other parts of the world that I see just how safe it is here, how easily we are shocked by one outbreak of violence.  In Iraq, during the same week as the Virginia Tech shootings, according to a fairly conservative estimate, there were five hundred civilian deaths from violent causes, over seventy a day, more than twice the Virginia Tech massacre every day of the week—and five hundred civilian deaths a week is on the low end for Iraq.  In order to put these numbers in perspective, let’s factor in the differences in population between the US and Iraq.

There are about three hundred million Americans, and about twenty-six million Iraqis, making the difference between the two populations a factor of twelve.  Per capita, then, the death of thirty Americans is equal to the death of about two and a half Iraqis—but the death of five hundred Iraqis is the equivalent of the death of six thousand Americans, and the total number of Iraqis killed—it’s hard to know, really—some estimates run around seventy thousand, some were saying a hundred thousand three years ago, and some have estimated as high as six hundred and fifty thousand—translate to between 840,000, 1.2 million, or as many as 7.8 million American civilian deaths.  Forget thirty unlucky students and teachers at Virginia Tech.   That’s the entire population of the state of Virginia.

Think about that—for the equivalent of the death of two Iraqi civilians, America is traumatized—and responds with attention and compassion—counselling, days of mourning, outpourings of help and sympathy.  And all the while our tax money is going to feed dozens of Virginia Tech massacres every day in a small country, far away, and the Democrats won’t even do anything to stop it.   Getting US troops out of Iraq wouldn’t precipitate a bloodbath, as some imperialists claim.  There’s already a bloodbath going on.  Removing US forces and substituting a Muslim peacekeeping force would likely go a long way towards settling things down in the Middle East.

While we’re on proportions, think of the refugees.  An estimated two million Iraqis have left the country, while about the same number have fled one part of Iraq for another.  That’s like having forty-eight million Americans displaced, half to Canada and Mexico and half internally.  By contrast, the largest mass evacuation in US history occurred when 1.2 million people were evacuated for Hurricane Katrina—the equivalent of a hundred thousand Iraqi refugees—a small fraction of what’s going on there now.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is said to be one of the guiding principles of Christianity and Judaism.  If we’re going to get back what we’ve done to Iraq, you’d better brace yourself.

I’m done with that comparison,  but I’m not done.  I was talking about Seung-Hui Cho—who only did what our military trains people to do—kill people he didn’t know.  Oh, sure, the military conditions its recruits to only kill when they are following orders, but we have unleashed a monster in Iraq and Cho is likely not the last American who will be overpowered by the zeitgeist and kill, kill kill.  According to the American Academy of Neurology, about forty percent of returning Iraq War vets have some kind of “mental disorder,” and not all of them are getting—or even seeking—treatment for it.

On one hand a lot has already been written about denial of mental illness in the military, and on the other, the mainstream mental health diagnosis and treatment paradigm leaves a lot to be desired, but what it boils down to is this:  serving in Iraq drives a lot of people violently crazy, and the government not only doesn’t give a hoot, it lacks the resources to do much about the problem if it did care.  As these veterans return to civilian life, they are going to bring the terrors of the Middle East to middle America—and considering how devious the Bush junta is, maybe that’s how they want it.

Terry Allen, “This Ain’t No Top 40 Song

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