The Human Face of Death
What the green hills of Blacksburg, Va., and the dusty streets of Baghdad have in common is that in the last few days terrible acts of violence have been perpetrated there.
But the reactions to that violence could not have been more different.
Within a day of the Virginia Tech massacre, the 32 victims were memorialized in detailed biographies, news stories, photos and "interactive features" on a range of Web sites.
Here's an excerpt from the Washington Post's write-up on 19-year-old Emily Hilscher, the first student killed by the deranged Cho Seung-Hui. Apparently, Hilscher liked every kind of music except country and classical. "Give me something I can bang my head to or dance like crazy and I'm all over it," she wrote in her My Space profile.
Of Ryan Clark, another early victim, the New York Times wrote, "Ryan Clark was known as Stack on campus, an amiable senior memorable for his ready smile and thoughtful ways ... Tall and thin, Mr. Clark, a resident of August, Ga., was well liked and a member of the university's marching band, the Marching Virginians."
It is entirely appropriate that the violence at Blacksburg be personalized. Putting the human face on death will help focus the nation's attention on an out-of-control culture of violence, which allows easy access to guns to the most demented among us.
If the violence in Iraq were humanized to the same extent, perhaps the war in Iraq would be over by now.
Yet, instead of putting a human face on the carnage there, the human toll in Iraq has been mostly reduced to body counts. The victims of the Iraq war have received little of the outpouring of grief and national attention focused on the Virginia victims.
Here's a cold number: as of this week, 3,309 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq. Typically, the victims get a story or two in their hometown newspaper or a report on local television. (I just read my colleague Steve Rubenstein's wrenching obituary on Sgt. Mario De Leon from Rohnert Park, who died in Baghdad on Monday. "Sweet, polite kind," his wife said of her 26-year-old husband, who loved to watch his collection of "Star Wars" movies. "I never met anyone like him.")
But then everyone moves on (except, of course, the survivors).
Some might say soldiers are in a line of work where casualties are expected. Mass homicide on a college campus, they'd argue, is a different story that deserve special attention.
But the civilian casualties of the civil war in Iraq rarely emerge as human beings who have lives as rich and complex lives as the Virginia dead. News reports from Iraq invariably provide a daily casualty count in a sentence or two, the numbers usually prefaced by the words "at least."
On the Saturday just before the Virginia Tech massacre, "at least" 37 people were killed, and another 150 wounded in a car bomb explosion in Karbala.
On Sunday, 34 people were killed in two suicide bombings in Baghdad. Of those who died half were women and children, according to a report.
On Wednesday, "at least" 158 people were killed in Baghdad in some of the deadliest attacks of the war.
So it goes, each day in Iraq. More deaths. More numbers.
I've been searching for a report profiling even one of yesterday's victims in Iraq. What did they look like? What music were they interested in? What were their hobbies? Who is mourning them?
I'll concede that it's tough to identify victims of suicide and car bombings. Language and security barriers make it difficult for reporters to track down relatives and friends of the victims.
Of course, they aren't Americans. It's understandable we would care more about our own.
The daily statistical reports from Baghdad on the latest atrocity are numbing to the point where we hardly pay attention to them anymore. They read like a table from Dow Jones Industrial index -- up today, down tomorrow.
Imagine what would happen if mass killings on the scale of the Virginia Tech massacre -- or multiples thereof -- occurred each day in the United States.
Yet that is exactly what is happening in Iraq, a country one-tenth our size.
The Virginia victims deserve to be remembered as vibrant human beings. The images of them that dominate the airwaves have the potential to spark action to make sure something like it does not happen again.
But the anonymous victims of a war begun by the United States should also be memorialized. By reducing them to ciphers, it's too easy to avoid confronting the full impact of the catastrophe that has overtaken Iraq.
And so the war goes on.
Louis Freedberg is a Chronicle editorial writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle