A Million Deaths is a Statistic. Or a Book.

I came into work today to a very strange message, asking for calm in the wake of a tragedy. Briefly, the police found a dead newborn in one of the dormitories on campus. Rumors are flying about the mother, and/or father, and if the baby was alive or stillborn, and many other things. I know a few details, but not many, but those I know I’ve been asked not to tell. I wouldn’t want to, either, as I detest the culture of explotative news. A student told me that a helicopter was flying around, trying to find information. On the way home around 4 this afternoon, over 12 hours after the event, I saw two TV satellite trucks just off campus property. I wanted to own a bullhorn, so I could exercise my freedom of speech by making it impossible for them to report. Have I mentioned that I hate local TV stations? Is this story really useful? Could we instead talk about the PKK and Turkey? or candidates for state Attorney General? or for that matter have everyone do ten sit ups instead and reduce some obesity? Of course not. It wil be a single death, a tragedy.

This is not solely a rant against television shock news, however. Whenever the details do arise, people will invariably claim that killing is the work of mad men and women, that it’s nearly impossible to understand. Perhaps this time it will be a chemical breakdown, which we can understand in the laboratory, yet find it abhorrent and nearly impossible to prevent. More likely, there will be cited factors, which will make little sense to those without the experience and desire to find the tales of darkness. I have plenty of experience with darkness, so I can at least search for logic.

One of the more difficult parts of that search was realizing that sometimes, viciously evil murderers are the most logical of us all. A good example of this is the Rwandan genocide, capably reported in We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families, by Philip Gourevitch. It took planning, years of cultural control, and a very compliant population to create the conditions for genocide. Masses just don’t rise up. I knew the results, the terrible results, but not the history. For that knowledge I am grateful. It’s an excellent narrative.
Beyond that, after the roughly million killings (leading to the quote from Stalin that the author reproduces and forms the title of this post), the book is a somewhat disjointed series of reports from 1994 to 1997. Many of the reports are telling. The colonial Belgians worsened a relatively calm situation, then up and left. IN the 1980s and 90s, through the genocide, the French supported the terrorizing Hutus, being misguided idiots. Reading how the international food and shelter community supported only the people near them was interesting, and confirmed what I knew from other sources. The view differs from the Goma Hutu camps to the reconstruction in Kigali. The international community made too much fuss about the death penalty and too little about the genocide. I still don’t know how many “acts of genocide” equal one genocide.

That said, there are problems with this book. One is bias. The author gets close access to some of the rebel non-genocidal leaders, and prints their comments. But he’s refuses to question their mass killings, and lets the explanations pass. Perhaps this was a necessary failure to get access. Still, a fundamental of Catholic moral thought is that an evil act, even in the commission of a noble good end, is an evil act that must be questioned. Mr. Gourevitch is not a Catholic moralist. Given the actions of some so-called Catholic leaders, that’s not the best example, but the morality is still excellent.
The other problem is that the enormity of the killing is very close to incomprehensible. The book doesn’t do enough for everyone. Between my imagination, fantasy, and knowledge of the dark and terrible, I make a reasonable attempt at seeing literal decimation – the slaughter of a tenth of the population. Imagine most American Hispanics being killed. Most people can’t. I’m not sure any book can build that image. That’s why this book gets only a 4 (Recommended) out of 5.

Maybe it’s best that any book can’t tell the story of a million deaths; do we want that to be common enough for fiction or nonfiction? Nevertheless, I’d like to see more people try to understand the statistic, and less exploitation of the tragedy. It’s going to be a messy couple of days.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network: http://adam.twelvefruits.com
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