We are not only a very unique species, but also very interesting, tightly bound together with a strong strand of ironies and paradoxes.
Let me delve on one such interesting paradox.
It almost always makes for good, emotional, and moving theatre when the life or death of one soldier, or it could be a band of soldiers, is plucked out from anonymity and served to us in a platter of glaring and inspiring detail. I call this our “Saving Private Ryan” moment, since which one of us cannot identify and empathize with the unique circumstances of the man Matt Damon played.
When anonymity is replaced with personal details, we are almost always moved emotionally and intellectually and may thus exhibit a myriad of moods and emotions, ranging from respect, love, honor, fear, inspiration, and even to hate. Hate for the powers that be responsible for bringing about the set of circumstances to rain on our perceived hero or heroes.
But in another vein, we appear to be anesthetized emotionally when dealing with large anonymous numbers. We cannot seem to fathom our emotional depths when we are confronted with unthinkably large numbers. Private Ryan was one life and we invested our entire emotional cache on his life, conveniently shunting aside the countless thousands who died on the beaches of Normandy alone, who did not have to die but obviously died for a cause they believed in. But a single life such as a Private Ryan pushes to the fore the idealism of our profound emotional qualities.
We also find ourselves unable to invest emotionally on the countless other young soldiers and civilians who died in wars and conflicts past. About 55,000 GIs died in Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. At least 15 million soldiers and civilians died during WW2. Etc, .
Saddam sitting on his cell is responsible for at least a million deaths, from the time he ascended to power, through the Iran-Iraq War, through the first gulf war, through the present war, and down to his jail cell time. Yet we are quite emotionally detached from him and his dastardly deeds, (and others like him) as though he never quite existed or mattered. Yet surprisingly, many vigorously hate the man responsible for taking him out of power. It is arguable if we have invested enough grief for all the hapless thousands who died in the WTC attacks. We can hardly remember how many idealistic young men died during the regime of Marcos, though we clearly continue to reminisce to this day of the billions he stole and the single life of a Ninoy Aquino. What about Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Several hundred of thousand lives wiped out in seconds. But then we cannot identify with a single Japanese life from those holocausts.
The same would be true with what is presently happening in Sudan where genocide is in progress. We may have to wait until one life is highlighted in detail before we can release and give rein to our profound emotions.
Why is this so? All those who died in conflict possessed the same life, with the same values and potentials, as any other life of any other color, race, and ethnicity.
If one perceives life as having value unto itself then it is most important that everybody lives and not die. But we have been taught that earthly life is not that significant. Christ taught by example about sacrificing a life so a greater good can be attained. Earthly life then has value when it has purpose, not because it is life and has to be lived to its natural end.
One of my sons reminisced about another fellow officer who died. He had known him quite well, sometimes doing duty for him. He was of his age, married also with two young kids. He was off-duty and was riding his bike home on a stretch of freeway when a hit-and-run rig ended his life abruptly. I caught a bit of the news about this officer’s funeral. And the comment of one fellow officer caught my attention. The guy said that the deceased lived and died doing what he liked to do, riding his bike.
He did not say that he died too young, or that some crazy guy snatched this man’s life away from his family, his work, and his friends. But that this young man lived doing what he liked to do.
Admittedly, it feels good to get confirmation for some self-arrived conclusions, from such as this one.
In the 1960s, the economist Thomas Schelling performed research demonstrating that people are more likely to be moved by single victims than by statistics.
UPDATE May 8, 2011
Another most recent validation confirming our unexplained bias toward the defense of “single victims than by statistics”. This time with the welcomed demise of the Number 1 terrorist in the world – Osama bin Laden. Again, we have heard many consoling voices, typically from the far left spectrum, decrying the death of bin Laden and condemning this unilateral act of the US of A as unmitigated assassination. Completely forgetting the heinous acts of this individual which have resulted in the deaths of countless people, mostly innocent victims. Even the Arab Street cannot extricate itself from the rut it finds itself in blindly coming to the defense of the dead terrorist. – at any time and at all costs.