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On a certain kind of perspective

Does pointing out that, every day, Iraq bears the weight of two massacres (or today, four) proportional to Seung-hui Cho’s rampage at Virginia Tech humanize the suffering of Iraqis, or does it diminish the suffering of Cho’s victims?



I ask because I could really go either way, and I wonder if the real answer isn’t dependent on the context of the utterance: is the comparison made in the service of a cheap political point or out of respect for all forms of injustice?

I’ve heard that said in a number of places too. In some contexts, I took it as, “Bad as this is, maybe this can give us some perspective on the magnitude of suffering in Iraq.” In other contexts, it was more like, “Can you finally understand now, you dipshit, red-state knuckledragger, just how utterly lost the war is??” Both perspectives are justified in my opinion.

What’s difficult to me, I think, is the assumption that such perspective can be understood now, rather than say, two weeks from now (2 weeks is the same as 2 months, entirely arbitrary), when anger or pain or frustration or gall can actually be turned into a meaningful interpretation of Cho’s actions. I mean, look how hard and fast people jumped on their favorite hobbyhorses. I’m surprised the horses can bear so much riding and that the ruts in the imaginary roads they ride on aren’t so deep they can see anything but dirt.

Then of course I turn around and think: “Well, Iraqis don’t get 2 weeks to figure it out…,” and I recognize that there is justification in the comparison.

So I guess underlying my question is another: what’s the value of making that point, even if it may be justified?

(I suppose I could also ask the same question about the gun control v. “if there’d been more guns somebody could’ve shot ‘im!” “debates” that are now raging…)

I don’t often disagree with Yglesias, for example, but on this subject, his instincts to take advantage of the moment misread the actual advantage of the moment. It’s wrong not for the message but for the medium—he wholly misreads the context that such a message can be delivered in. To that end, his first commenter is spot on.

Haha, yeah, I read that post earlier and, I know exactly which comment you’re referring to. I’m not sure how exactly I feel about that whole issue. Certainly it’s inappropriate to hit the hobby horses on the very day of the tragedy, as our new best friend Malkin did. I think the next day is pretty much fair game though, so long as all participants are more or less personally removed from the disaster.

The big throwdown on ME’s blog yesterday, for example, may have been by turns raucous and tedious. But I don’t think it was at all exploitative or hurtful.

I say all that to say that I agree with Yglesias’s first point about how irritating it is for people to pull a big sad po’ face and righteously condemn people who are doing anything other than “lifting up prayers for the victims” or going to a vigil or whatever. Jesus, someone just give these guys a Nobel prize for compassion so they’ll shut up and leave us alone. If there is any way to reduce these sorts of things it is not going to be through prayer or sympathy but through public policy. So it’s not at all inappropriate to revisit that in times like these.

Next day is hardly different from day of. It’s not enough time to create meaning. The fact that a news cycle isn’t really a cycle anymore only obscures—or maybe the better word is emphasizes—the fact that nobody really knows what to say or do. I submit that’s precisely why people jump on their hobbyhorses so quickly. It’s one thing for school administrators to promise reevaluate their security plans; it’s wholly another to commit to giving their security SWAT training given the fact that campuses are still pretty much the places in the U.S. safest from violent crime (not including rape). Such quick reaction is raucous and tedious, and I think, worthless.

7 to 5.

6: I guess it depends on what you mean by revisiting public policy. I find the sensitivity police irritating, too, but no less irritating are the ones who don’t actually evaluate public policy but jump on the principle that jumping is necessary to protect one’s self.

I’m glad someone had the balls to say it. I’m not sure which end it serves, but it needed to be said.

It’s sickening to have to revise upward the number of dead in Baghdad today: 171+ (5.5 Chos).

10: “It”?

RE: 5.5 Chos
I think you’ve just hit on a good way to start thinking about the daily Iraq death tolls. Start counting the days in factors of Cho or, what’s better, VT, since the media has already made Cho a rock star to disaffected students. Along with factors of VT death stats, why don’t we just start counting the days until the first Cho copycat killing.

On your original question HG, I wonder if such a comparison is necessarily what philosophers would call ‘thin.’ Like so much butter spread on a piece of bread, it does cover both questions but not as fully as if it had remained in its original context.

That is, this comparison may give us a frame of reference for understanding the separate sufferings of people in Virginia and Iraq, but we can’t claim that having an understanding of one would necessarily explain the other.

Right, shaun. One doesn’t make that kind of comparison in order to facilitate understanding, but in order to frame (which is not to say that framing isn’t a part of understanding). That’s why it’s a kind of perspective rather than an argument. It’s also why the either/or between humanization and diminishment isn’t really an either/or proposition.

Over dinner last night (before we went to see Jimmy Carter), we were talking this over and realized that it’s also a comparison that is also limited by who makes it and when. An antiwar demonstrator—someone most likely to jump on the comparison in the first place—whose poster reads, “Every day in Iraq = 3 Chos!” wipes away its value as a frame precisely because her activism eliminates the chance that her audience will see she holds Cho’s murders at VT with sufficient gravitas. She may be deadly serious and want to say what she says out of respect for all life, but the message will get lost. Thin, indeed.

(Also worth noting, re: the parenthetical in 3, is Thoreau’s point.)

He would’ve been a rock star to (severely) disaffected students with or without the media (though his manifesto probably doesn’t hurt him much among them).

I don’t think that it humanizes the Iraqi (or Darfur, or daily gun deaths in the US, or any other number of things) situation. Nor do I think that it diminishes the suffering of the Virginia Tech victims. I think that it illustrates how self-centered Americans often are. We don’t bat an eye at all the violent deaths that occur everyday, but if it’s a large number at once in our own country we freak out. I wish that there was some way to increase the awareness of people I know, but then I realize that I need to increase my awareness first. I also agree with what William Saletan wrote yesterday for Slate: Thank God Cho only had guns and not a bomb. I know that’s somewhat insensitive, but think how many more people would have died.

Welcome, Steven. I’d never contest your assertion that Americans are self-centered (nor, had you said it, that Americans are paranoid), though I suspect that all nations are self-centered in their own ways. There’s some legitimate reasons for Americans to freak out when there are mass killings within the contiguous states—we may be the world’s foremost experts at pulling triggers that result in the killing of hundreds or thousands, but we don’t witness the other end of that mass death very often. Not that we should. Better that mass killing becomes rarer in all the world so that everyone can be so shocked.

So anyway, Saletan’s sure is a curious argument—thanks for pointing it out. Because it both participates in this comparison and denies it, it’s a little smelly. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong: isn’t his argument in favor of guns by virtue of the fact that Cho didn’t have a bomb? Isn’t that’s like trying to meet somebody at the coffee shop by driving away from the coffee shop?

I thought Saletan’s argument a curious one too. If it is that gun-control activists should focus their limited resources on banning the weapons that threaten the most damage, I might go along for the ride because that seems both reasonable and desirable. But if it is simply that gun-control is a waste of time because there are bigger fish to fry, I don’t know what to make of it. Just because bombs are worse than (some/most) guns doesn’t mean that we should ignore gun violence (which tends to be smaller in scale but also much more frequent).

Sorry, HG, the “it” I was referring to is the pointing out of the relative numbers of deaths and the subsequent response.

Already today I have had more requests to join Facebook groups that are “praying for VT” or “We’re all Hokies,” and one email requesting that we all wear orange and maroon to show support.

It is callous to say, and I hope no one too close to the situation reads this, but 35 or so people died. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a tiny, tiny number. In some senses, the outrage over this tragedy seems slightly out of proportion.

But I’m also the guy who thought the 3,000 killed on 9/11 wasn’t that big a number, either, especially when considered alongside the death tolls of various countries on any given day from treatable diseases.

You are cynical. I rather prefer to see it as 33 is 33 too many; likewise 271, likewise, and so forth. At the very least, it’s times like this that Americans prove we do know the meaning of solidarity.

You’re right, of course, about 33 being too many.

Insofar as I have thoughts to add, here the are (she said, rudely doling out her own link love—but it seemed like a bit much to leave as a comment).

L, if you hadn’t linked to it, I would’ve.

Meanwhile, James Carroll, writing for the Boston Globe picks up the comparison. I think he abuses HA as a straw woman in developing his taxonomy of violence. He dismisses the idea that Cho’s acts could be instrumental too much out of hand, as if the abuse of persons for symbolic reasons wasn’t a good enough reason to allow it into the realm of the instrumental. That’s a value judgment against symbolism, not a categorical definition for expression. But better that he abuse HA than any of those murdered (either at VT or in Iraq): her reputation can handle it.

Christopher Hitchens is crazy, but sometimes there comes a certain clarity from people who neither need love nor fear hatred from anyone.

I don’t read CH much. Is he denying solidarity altogether or just the shadow of it?

(On CH, I saw this about exactly the time I read your link.)

He was a socialist before he went neo-con, so he is probably down for solidarity. I think his beef is with the unseemliness of widespread public emotion on what is essentially a private matter (his old-school Englishness might have something to do with that).

I didn’t know he was jumping on the “religion sucks” book bandwagon. That’s a shame. As much as I agree with many of his criticisms of religion, they can be a little fixated and single minded. That also applies to Dawkins, et al.

Having just read an excerpt from his new book in Slate.com, I repent of my pooh-poohing. It bordered on great.