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Regarding Human Suffering in the Global Age

August 21, 2007

Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience.” — Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others.

haiti_flood_1.jpgI thought of Sontag’s observation as I found myself helplessly following the path of Hurricane Dean on the internet, which blessedly seems to have spared Mexico any loss of human life — at least so far, and so far as we know. Yet in this “reprieve” (strange to find a blessing in a storm which killed 11 as it tore across the Caribbean islands), I still struggle to comprehend two other tragedies we have been made witness to through the news this week: the truck bombs exploded in two poor villages in Northern Iraq last week, the latest punctuation in Iraq’s numbing carnage, and the massive earthquake in Peru.

Perhaps it is the statistical quirk that leads me to these thoughts. The current casualty count is identical in both of these stories: at least 500 dead, and at least 1500 wounded.

Dear God, what are we to make of such numbers?

Can we possibly comprehend such numbers in a way that reflects some kind of genuine caring about the human lives they represent? A recent piece by L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum (reprinted on Common Dreams) describes the ways in which we misconstrue such numbers. Public awareness is skewed toward the sensational and familiar, she argues. We pay much more attention to the sporadic but statistically much less significant plane crash or mountain lion attack than to the steady carnage of automobiles (3,500 killed a month) or heart disease (one death every 36 seconds).

And, much worse, no one can deny that there is a warped economy in public awareness that finds the loss of lives we can identify with far more interesting than others. In every American city I’ve ever lived, a murdered white suburbanite is worth more in column inches and air time than any three black inner city bodies. And the disparity between our interest in the fate of Americans and the nameless hordes of dark-skinned suffering others is simply obscene. Roughly 3000 children die every day of malaria in the developing world, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, with hardly a flicker of attention in the news.

Daum is clearly right about these biases, but she sees them as an innocent means of coping with our helplessness in the face of the inevitability of these tragedies:

The real risks (and, by extension, the multitude of daily tragedies those risks engender) simply hit too close to home. We don’t think about car accidents and heart disease not because we think it won’t happen to us but because we suspect or even assume it will. Given the inevitable, our response is to put it out of our minds entirely…. We care, but the diseases and the car wrecks that kill thousands of us every day are so common that they’re the opposite of news. They’re also usually too frightening to contemplate. Freak accidents, in contrast, are freakishly comforting.

But I see such biases as a much more serious problem, a sign of radical dehumanization, clear evidence that we have built a world whose sprawling economic and communication systems fundamentally threaten our moral integrity. It is no accident that so much of the world’s suffering happens in exotic locales replete with florid poverty, so hard for comfortable Americans to identify with. Americans are connected to the distant peoples of the world through an intensifying grid of global markets and a shared bioshpere, but our social and moral connections with them stagnate and wither. As a result, global economic relations have been exploitive. While globalization does open potential opportunities for the global poor, on the whole the trend has so far been to “increasing inequalities, both between advanced countries and developing countries, and within industrialized countries” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, ¶362) — systematically leaving the global poor more vulnerable to disease, natural catastrophe and political violence.

As most readers of this blog will know, many individuals and organizations are engaged in a tremendous struggle to redress these injustices, and this is surely good grounds for encouragement. Ultimately, I believe our individual and collective fate hinges on the success of these efforts. And ultimately, their success will hinge on our ability to somehow care, despite the magnitude of the problem, despite greed and comforts that distract us, despite the social and cultural differences that separate us.

And despite the horrible abstraction of distance and numbers.

Dear God, what are we to make of such numbers? And of course, the numbers have been and tragically will be again much, much worse. Can we possibly recognize and care in the face of suffering of this magnitude?

A few years back, in the wake of the tsunami that devastated Indonesia, I heard a brief essay called “Dots in Blue Water” on NPR by the writer Annie Dillard that is more heartbreakingly honest than anything else I have heard about this problem. Dillard recalls a conversation she had with her seven year old daughter on April 30, 1991, a day in which 138,000 people drowned when a tsunami struck Bangladesh. She said it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.

“No, it’s easy,” her daughter replied. “Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.”

These are not dots, Dillard corrects, but human lives — beloved daughters, brothers, parents, partners in love. But she reflects on the honesty of her daughter’s characterization, how “an individual’s significance weakens with distance, like the force of gravity.” Yet, despite this problem, she concludes the essay with a kind of prayer, a vision of how we must care despite the problem of distance, and the shocking magnitude of the loss:


A newspaper headline said `Headspinning numbers cause minds to go slack.’ But surely we agree, our minds must not go slack. Neither must our hands. We the living now enter the surf to form a human boom like a log boom. We try to encircle and enclose and bring in and burn or save the dots. All the dots. Those Indian and Indonesian dots. Those dots dropping everywhere in Iraq right now. The starving dots. We do not go slack. We secure the boom. We hold tight to other hands in the water. We save and rescue as many dots as we can, whether we can see the people flail in front of us or not.”

You can donate to Peru earthquake relief at Catholic Relief Services.


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