The invisible atrocity

As if we don’t already have enough to worry about (global financial collapse, endless wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, the future of network programming), here’s an AP story that’s gotten very little play but I found on the Honolulu Advertiser website. It says that stupid accidents around the world kill nearly a million children every year.

According to the AP story, “More than 800,000 children die each year from burns, car accidents, falls, poisoning and other accidents, with the vast majority of those deaths occurring in developing countries, according to experts and a report released Wednesday by the World Health Organization and UNICEF.” (You can read the original WHO/UNICEF report here.)
Eight hundred thousand children killed every year in preventable accidents. That’s something like 2,000 deaths every day. The number is so high as to be nearly impossible to imagine.
So we simply don’t imagine it. I was being sarcastic in my lead sentence: we will worry about wars and financial disasters, but children around the world dying in accidents–that we won’t worry about. That’s just a statistic, and statistics aren’t tragic. They’re just background noise.
Look at how we’re able to live with highway deaths in this country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 340,000 people died on the highways between 2000 and 2007 (with another 16.5 million injured in the same period). Every year, an average of about 41,000 people die on American highways.
This is neither a new figure nor one that seems to trouble many people. In fact, we as a society have done a remarkable job of living with the dead, even when they literally lie all around us. We live with them by saying and doing nothing. Forty-one thousand (or 800,000) dead every year is an atrocity, and we deal with that atrocity by making it invisible.
“Where is the memorial to those deaths and wounds?” Curtis White asks in his remarkable 2003 book The Middle Mind: Why Americans don’t think for themselves. “These numbers dwarf the losses in wars like Vietnam and Korea, and yet they are the result of a ‘rationalizing’ of our communities and our lives.”
UPDATE: A few minutes after I posted this entry I came across this story about a horrific car accident early this morning in West Maui that killed a man. My first thought was, “Aha! Here we have a tragedy, and it is being portrayed as such.” But then I realized that the 41,000 people who died in traffic accidents last year probably had similar stories marking their deaths, too.

3 thoughts on “The invisible atrocity

  1. I don’t get it. What would be the “correct,” or merely a better, response?Thousands of people are born and die every day. Each one is (at least) a small scale triumph or tragedy, isn’t it?


  2. To a certain extent I’m making a media criticism (the WHO/UNICEF study hasn’t received nearly as much play as the Governor Blagojevich story) but in this case, I think the media is just reflecting all of our preference for stories with definable villains and moralities. For instance, I can’t remember an elected official anywhere who said he or she wanted to so everything possible to bring down traffic accidents. My reason for that is that there’s no villain or over-riding morality in 40,000 people dying every year in traffic accidents, so those deaths become something we all live with.


  3. To be glib, life is 100% terminal.I’m not saying that Nader-esque safety crusades are never a good thing, but at some point it becomes impossible (or very wasteful) to expend more effort to reduce the diminishing likelihood of accidental deaths. Humans routinely engage in risky behavior with the belief/delusion that accidents will happen to the next person, if at all. Part of that mindset is, as you note, a coping mechanism—we’d never leave the house if we considered every possible accident that could befall us. (Actually, plenty of things within the home are deadly, too, but I digress.)Sure, morality as we know it posits that every life is “precious” (well, to at least one person), but, considered in the coldly analytical aggregate, the fate of a single person, or even 40,000 in a world of several billion, is of very little importance. This crude analysis may be a retrogression to our primal Darwinian instincts, I reckon.Or it could be that most of us in the developed world are just egotistical assholes who can’t be bothered to care about the rest. Oops, same argument.


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