Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Quantifying Horror

How do we measure horror? Can it be quantified? Can it be ranked? Can the senseless horror of 32 students gunned down at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007 be compared to the hatred fueled horror of Sunni gunmen with automatic weapons slaughtering 48 Iraqi civilians in a marketplace on July 17, 2006? - or - compared to the inexplicable horror of 52 British commuters killed by British born and raised suicide bombers on July 7, 2005? - or - to the intricately calculated horror of 2,973 victims crushed and burned in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon? - or - to the random horror of 300,000 killed in the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami?

We experience more second hand horror in greater detail and with more immediacy and visceral impact than any generation that has gone before. The experience of horror is unique and personal. Still, we seem compelled to keep score, to compare horrific events, ranking them on a scale of best to worst. The Virginia Tech massacre headline is "Deadliest Shooting in U.S. History". Charles Whitman, Dylan Klebold, and Eric Harris can step aside. We have a new domestic champion in academic shooting horror.

We carefully count the dead, but the body count is only one determinant of how we rank and react to horror. The impact we feel depends on geography. How close is it to me? Did it happen at a place I know or somewhere I have stood? It depends on familiarity. Did the horror directly touch me or someone I know? It depends on timing. For many Americans, thirty two dead students in Virginia on Monday may feel worse than two hundred thousand victims of genocide spread out over a decade in Darfur. How we feel about a horror (or if we even take notice) also depends on whether there is a camera present, and whether editors deem it worthy of our attention. Finally, how we feel about horror depends on whether the victims look and dress and talk like us. For an Iraqi, the horror of 42 dead Iraqis last Saturday from a car bombing in Karbala feels much worse that 32 dead students in Virginia on Monday. Conversely, for many Americans the continuous horror of sectarian violence in Iraq has faded to background noise, evoking no more emotional involvement than a shake of the head and a cluck of the tongue. We will soon learn the names and see the faces of the32 innocent students and teachers killed in Virginia on Monday. We will probably never hear the names of the 42 innocent Iraqi's killed in Karbala on Saturday. This is not an indictment or a criticism of how we feel. This is simply an aspect of being human and exposed via media to more remote horror than any person can emotionally or intellectually comprehend. That does not mean we cannot or should not attempt to understand the pain of those experiencing horrors that are out of our emotional reach.

Perhaps the only way to begin to understand another's experience of horror, is to employ an analog, a "unit of measure", a quantum of horror that we can intuitively grasp. Tell an American the price of a litre of gasoline, and you are likely to get a blank stare, but the price of a gallon of gasoline is immediately and intuitively understood. Perhaps we can only understand horror in units of measure with which we are familiar.

Quantifying horror requires a familiar unit of measure informing an intuitive level of understanding that can be transferred to events in other cultures and time. For Americans, the benchmark of horror is the 9/11/01 attack on the World Trade Center. We all remember where we were and what we were doing when we learned of it. In its wake, we stopped travelling, we stopped trading, we just plain stopped to consider our lives and try to find meaning in the horror and heroism of those that died in the towers. Many Americans were connected to 9/11 by a deep and personal loss of a loved one. For many more, there was a connection to the place it occured. I fortunately did not lose anyone close to me on 9/11. I have, however, lived, worked and played in Manhattan. I attended business meetings in the World Trade Center, dined at the Windows on the World restaurant, and rode the subway below ground zero. My experience of a place, now gone, where so many died so horribly, made the tragedy more personal for me and amplified my sense of loss. Less so than those who lost friends and loved ones. Less so than those who were there in Manhattan on that day.

Still, I intuitively understand what it means to witness a horror, even at a distance, measured in units on the scale of the 9/11 WTC attack.

This week, I intuitively understand the sadness, the disquiet, the feeling of helplessness that is what it means to witness a horror, even at a distance, measured in units on a scale of the Virginia Tech massacre.

The Presidentof the United States said this in Blacksburg:
"It's impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering. Those whose lives were taken did nothing to deserve their fate. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now they're gone, and they leave behind grieving families and grieving classmates and a grieving nation. "
His words were heartfelt, simple, eloquent and true. He was talking about the horror visited on Virginia Tech on Monday. His words were equally appropriate and true when applied to the horror visited on Baghdad on Sunday.

The newspaper said this about Baghdad:
"The gravest of the attacks in Baghdad occurred Sunday morning, when twin car bombs exploded in a bustling marketplace in the Shurta Raba neighborhood, killing 18 people. A few hours later, six people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated a belt of explosives inside a minibus, and another car bomb killed five. Later, two car bombs several hours apart ripped through the normally calm neighborhood of Karrada in southern Baghdad, killing 13, police said."
To read the newspaper report does not help us to understand how a Baghdad resident experienced that horror. To say that Iraq experienced a "Virginia Tech horror" on Sunday, may permit us to empathize with the Iraqi's who lived through it and experienced it on that day.

Does it diminish our sorrow, or dilute our sympathy for what was lost in Blacksburg on Monday if we compare it to what was lost in Baghdad on Sunday? I think not. Perhaps it will permit us to gain a better appreciation of what is really happening to the people of Iraq.

The point is this: The Iraqi people experience a Virginia Tech quantum of horror every day. Some days two. Some days three or more. Every single day. Every day, yet another Virginia Tech sized pebble of horror dropped into the water of Iraqi society sends expanding rings of sorrow and loss and anger through the population. Every single day.

The U.N. estimated that an average of 100 Iraqi civilian war related deaths occured every day in 2006. That equates to a WTC equivalent horror unit in Iraq every month. Every single month. Try to imagine what that is like. A 9/11 every month. In a country of twenty five million people. I cannot. If the Iraqi people lose confidence in the ability of their leadership, and the United States stewardship to protect them from the violence, they will reach for a leader who will promise restore peace. Any leader. Moqtada al-Sadr waits in the wings:
"Motivated by the prospect of an eventual U.S. withdrawal, Sadr has uneasily cooperated with the current security plan, allowing U.S. troops to enter his Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City and ordering his Mahdi Army militiamen to stand down. But in the past two months, bombings have risen in Shiite areas while U.S. and Iraqi troops have killed or arrested hundreds of his fighters "The Sadrist base is becoming angry. This is mostly to preserve his base," said Joost Hiltermann, a Jordan-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, referring to the pullout. "They were under a lot of pressure because the security plan which they tacitly accepted is not working. The Americans are failing. They can't stop the bombings."
As I researched links for this post, I ran across this ScrippsNews editorial, written by Paul Cantos, a professor of law atht he University of Colorado. He explores a similar theme, more eloquently than I, and I will not find words that improve on his concluding thoughts:
"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."
Update April 20, 2007
"They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time." - George Bush
Thursday, April 12 - One(1) Virginia Tech Horror Equivalent (VTHE) unit of measure reported in Baghdad:
8 killed, 20 wounded in Baghdad when suicide bomber detonates inside green zone in Iraq parliament cafeteria. 12 killed 30 wounded when truck bomb destroys bridge over Tigris River.
Friday, April 13 - One Half (.5) VTHE unit of measure reported in Baghdad
Around 10 deaths and 20 wounded in a variety of mortar, IED, and gun attacks on civilians in Baghdad and Mosul.
Saturday, April 14 - Two(2) VTHE units reported in Karbala, one(1) VTHE in Baghdad:
40-60 killed, hundreds wounded including 16 children when car bomb explodes near market and bus station in Karbala. 10 killed 15 wounded in second bridge car bomb attack in Baghdad.
Sunday April 15 - 1.5 VTEH in Baghdad:
42 killed, dozens wounded in series of car bombing in Baghdad
Monday, April 16 - 1 VTEH unit in Blacksburg, Virginia:
32 students and faculty killed by psychotic gunman in Blacksburg, Va.
Wednesday April 18 - 6 VTEH units in Baghdad. 2 VTEH units across Iraq:
183+ killed, hundreds wounded in Baghdad in coordinated car bomb attack on market in Shiite neighborhoods, and 58 bullet ridden bodies found across Iraq.
Thursday April 19 - .5 VTEH units in Baghdad;
12 killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad.
Totals - 13 Virgina Tech Equivalent Horror Units in Iraq over the last week. 1 in the U.S.

The primary role of government is to "insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense." There is no reason to believe that Iraqi's will be any more tolerant of leadership that fails to provide this basic service than Americans. Washington Post reports:
"In Sadriya, angry residents cursed the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for failing to protect them. Smoke still billowed from the debris and sandals and glass littered the ground in Sadriya. "The government is talking about the security plan but dozens of people are dying every day. No one is protecting us," Sabah Haider, 42, told Reuters as he stood beside a dozen incinerated minibuses. Rahim Ali, also in Sadriya, said: "The Americans say they are here to protect the Iraqi people but they are doing nothing."
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