One Life Is as Valuable as Any Other

They're dropping like flies! You know: noteworthy guys that we all love. Did you ever see George Carlin perform? He presented the truth in irony and the irony in truth and cracked us all up.

I saw him in concert once and part of his routine ridiculed tree huggers. A tree hugger myself, I paid close attention.

Forgive me while I paraphrase. It was a live performance of which I have no recording. Carlin chided the tree huggers' irrational attempts to save the planet. He cited our efforts in recycling and conservation and alternative energy. He chuckled about us wanting to clean the water or the air or save some endangered species. He worked up his gag for 10 or 15 minutes and then delivered his piercing punch line.

He sniggered something like, save the planet, save the planet, tree huggers say they want to save the planet. What fools, this planet's going to out last them! Let's face the truth! They aren't trying to save the planet; they're trying to save you! And his mocking yet astute point was made as he literally pointed his finger at the audience. He silently grinned with one eyebrow cocked higher than the other, while we nervously laughed at his shrewd observation.

This year the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts selected Carlin to receive the Mark Twain Prize for a lifetime of funny business. Kurt Vonnegut, a guy who should have won it, too, said that if you live long enough you stop being funny: "Humor is a way of holding off how awful life can be, to protect yourself. Finally you just get too tired, and the news is too awful and humor doesn't work anymore." Vonnegut added, "Mark Twain thought life was quite awful, but held the awfulness at bay with jokes and so forth, but finally he couldn't do it anymore."

I wonder if Carlin got to Twain's point before he won Twain's prize.

You know what I think is funny? Funny odd -- not funny ha ha. We make such a big deal when one person dies -- if it's the right person -- and such a little deal if it's nobody special.

In 2007, USA Today reported that 18,000 kids die each day of hunger. But we don't really notice. It's not our fault. Is it? I mean, we can't have 18,000 Tim Russert or even George Carlin sized funerals every day.

It's actually a math problem. Some numbers are too big to think about, and other numbers are too small to overlook. First of all, there are more than 6 billion of us on this planet: 18,000 kids -- that's about 70 million a year -- about one nine-hundredth of the world's population. Way too big to comprehend.

Yet Carlin was only one six-billionth, so he's front page news. His passing was just too small to overlook.

Maybe there's a number somewhere in between one and 70 million that we can agree is the magic number for giving a damn if folks live or die.

How about 659,067? Maybe that's a number we can agree matters.

See 654,965 is the number that the Lancet, a smarty pants medical journal, says died in the Iraq war in the first few years. As they put it, "We estimate that as of July 2006, there have been 654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of war." And I've added to it the number of U.S. soldiers that died in the war as well.

Of course, it's 2008, so we know that number is on the low side. But it's still nestled nicely between Carlin and-or Russert and the number of starved kids.

Imagine how quickly this war would end if we paid as much attention to each of the individuals, families, funerals and grieving communities that lost their respective Tim Russert or George Carlin.

We could stop these useless deaths if we could agree that one life is as valuable as any other.

Or let's just agree that Carlin was right when he said, "If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little."

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