Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Understanding the Corpses

Every blogger runs the risk of being a pontificating twit, a prattling narcissist, or some affiliated variety of prat. My hunch is that I'm particularly liable to lapse into insensitive dickery. And so I'm having a very hard time writing this post because I'm almost positive it'll come out wrong. But I still feel like what I have to say today is worth saying if I can say it right.

And I want to say that I think we're paying too much attention to the Virginia Tech shootings. Now, I'm not saying that it isn't a big story or that we shouldn't pay attention to it. Thirty-two people murdered is overwhelming. That sort of death, its pointless brutality, should impress itself on our thoughts. On the day all this was happening, I happened to be talking to a current Virginia Tech visiting Chicago. Maybe she would have been killed if she'd still been in Blacksburg. Maybe friends of hers died. Surely friends of her friends were gunned down for no reason worth the name. So that puts me at one or two degrees of separation from the slaughter--immune from the worst suffering but sensitized to the reality of it, aware that something awful happened to real people.

So, yes, I do think we should be paying attention and trying to think it through. Mike, for example, has posted thoughtfully on the shootings. In fact, it's hard for me to figure out how one can pay too much thoughtful attention to the stupid, heartbreaking murder of so many people. (It's not hard to figure out how one can pay too much exploitative, sleazy attention to it; for that, one has only to turn on half of TV news about the story.) So I don't think my objection is about the absolute amount of attention; I think it's about the relative amount of the attention.

Look, if you will, at the pic at the top of this post. The New York Times has three stories dedicated to the Tech killings. That's down from yesterday, I think. It has only one dedicated to the bombing deaths of 115 Iraqis today. Now, of course US reporters will cover US deaths more closely. Their readers and viewers care more and not necessarily for racist or xenophobic reasons but simply because we are taught to think of ourselves as Americans, and so when Americans die, we feel more personally involved. There's something disturbing about that, I think, but reporters aren't and can't be entirely detached from their own cultures. So American reporters cover American deaths more closely. (Plus, of course, it's easier, cheaper, and safer to send reporters to Virginia than to Anbar, so there will be more reporters on the ground anyway.)

Still, there is something wrong here. I've written before that our media often seem to treat some murder victims as way more important that others, and some of that seems to be happening with the Tech slayings. Thirty-three dead (counting the killer) is overwhelming at Tech because there have never been that many people killed there in a single day, not for decades at least, and there's nothing even approaching 33 homicides per year on the Tech campus. So the story is that something shocking has happened. But there there are neighborhoods in the US where 33 people die each year pretty regularly, most of them about the same age as the kids at Tech. That to me is at least as shocking, when you stop to think about it. Which we don't, by and large, unless we live in those neighborhoods. And we don't, by and large. So it keeps happening.

But even our radically uneven sensitivity to death isn't all that bothers me about it. I also think it's because--through a combination of mutually reinforcing practicalities and prejudices--the reporting encourages us think of the dead in Blacksburg as people and the dead in Iraq (and Detroit and Afghanistan...) as numbers. The New York Times, for example, has an interactive feature that gives pictures and details about each of the victims. Even the two currently unidentified victims count as individuals.

Of the Baghdad bombing, the Times can tell us only that the victims were in a "predominately Shiite district." Even the Iraqi reporters who contributed to the story remain anonymous (no doubt to protect them from insurgent attacks). And there's something deeply wrong about that. Without discounting the serious practical obstacles to identifying the Baghdad victims at all much less learning enough about them to provide photos and biographical snapshots, I think it hurts us that we won't ever see get those details.

In fact, simply because I happened to have some small connection to somebody from Virginia Tech at about the time of the shootings, I realize viscerally how angry and mystified and terrified people in Blacksburg must feel right now. I realize the genuine importance of the story, which, ironically makes me think what we're paying too much attention to it or, better, that we're paying too little attention to the ongoing slaughter in Iraq in comparison with the Tech deaths.

I don't say this because almost four times as many died in the recent attacks; it's not about numbers. I say it because it finally sunk in for me how hard and how long everybody touched directly by the Tech killings will have to struggle to come to terms with what happened there. How many nightmare-plagued nights, how many involuntary flinches at popping sounds, how many happy memories of friends that turn sour when the reality of their deaths reasserts itself. The events of a single day will affect the survivors for years, probably for the rest of their lives. I'm obtuse, so it took me a while to really deal with the enormity and the intensity of that. And then an even more overwhelming realization hit me: in Baghdad, for virtually everyone there, it's not the events of a single day. It's the events of days like that every month, if not every week, piled on top of one another, year after year after year.

And that's the story that's missing, I think. The unremitting trauma of being alive in Baghdad these days. Despite all the numbers and video footage, I don't think we as a country have really thought through what it means to live in a place where you can count on ten, twenty, fifty times a year hearing the same news that panicked parents and friends heard about the Tech shootings--there has been a senseless mass killing where your daughter goes to school, where your son works, where your wife studies. Only the families of soldiers on the ground have to deal with that. But that's what living though war actually means. And until we understand that on a gut level, we'll never understand what the war has meant for Iraqis.

Of course, maybe this has been obvious to all of you from the start. Maybe I'm just empathy deficient. If so, today I'm wishing I were a little more deficient. I'd feel better, anyway. But this war was started by people on all sides with that particular defect, people who think in abstractions like money and power or glory and honor and national will. But people who have the power to start violence should think in terms of distant pops and ominously ringing telephones, of terror, loss, and the rage that grows out of them.

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