Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Moral Arithmetic I'm a big fan of Joshua Marshall, but in this post, he follows a line of reasoning I've never quite been able to understand:
Iraq has a population of just under 25 million. The United States is home to a tad over 290 million. In other words, there are well over ten times as many Americans as Iraqis.

So, to get a feel for the impact of these attacks on the country, the number of people who lost loved ones, know others who did, and so forth, multiply that death toll by 11 or 12 times in order to get a feel for the number in American terms.

What is this supposed to mean exactly? And where does it end--with a single homocide in Monaco worth 100 in New York?

I do understand what Marshall--and others who make this kind of point--are trying to get at. But can't we just be satisfied with saying that the slaughter of 200 innocents--wherever it occurs--represents an enormous tragedy? Do we really want to subscribe to the idea that a death in Baghdad causes twelve times the pain of a death in Boston? Or only half the pain of a death in Belarus?

Once you pick it apart, Marshall's notion--that a death's impact depends on the size of the society in which it occurs--starts to look awfully morally suspect.

If a parallel is absolutely necessary, the better comparison would be apples-to-apples: to juxtapose the impact of 200 deaths in Iraq to the trauma that would be caused by an equivalent tragedy in similarly-populated Texas.

But even that doesn't tell us much.

Better just to say that 200 people are dead. That it's a crime and a shame. And to acknowledge that our country--and this government--has an obligation to help stop the carnage.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.