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Numbers

Aug
31
2005

It seems grotesque, in a manner, to rank and compare catastrophes, particularly when they involve the loss of human life. To do so often enough appears to buy into the sentiment of Stalin’s cruel quip that a single man dead is a tragedy, but a million dead is a statistic. Still, there are comparative scales of suffering, and it is enough to note that the suffering attendant to Katrina is immense. Even if we do not arrive at the feared toll of thousands dead, the dozens we know were drowned or crushed in the storm’s course is a heavy burden in itself.
All of this is by way of acknowledging that there are already comparisons being made between Katrina and 9/11. It is quite possible that Katrina may yet be known to exact a higher toll than that day. From this, policy conclusions are being drawn. There’s little sense in going through them, except to note that they are policy conclusions meant almost exclusively to further the loathesome and strenuous efforts to blame the Administration for this act of God. The line goes that the American political leadership chose to focus upon the actual and possible lives lost due to terrorism at the expense of the actual and possible lives lost due to natural disasters like Katrina. As has been noted elsewhere here, governance is an exercise in prioritization; those advancing the aforementioned line presumably adhere to the premise that the determinant of priorities is plain quantity of lives lost.
This is wrong.
The major killers of Americans are, of course, neither terrorism nor hurricanes. Rather, they are, in no particular order: automobiles, fat-laden burgers, the flu, other Americans, etc. We do not, as a rule, reorder life and policy for these things as we would for terrorism or hurricanes. There is a school of thought, mostly in the ranks of public health professionals, that argues we ought to do precisely that. Most people disagree, as they recognize on some level that there are differing moral qualities to deaths: every human life is equally precious, but the moral context of each life’s end varies. It is traditionally the concern of government to address only specific moral contexts of death. Murder is the primary example, and while Western governments have moved ever-further into involvement in the contexts of deaths by other means — acts of God and disease-related most notably — it remains the prime example.
This, then, is the fallacy at the heart of the emerging comparisons between 9/11 and Katrina. The Bush Administration was quite right to orient policy and priorities toward the former. The latter, too, was and remains a just concern of government (even if we have long since established that the ideal scenarios called-for by the left in the past 48 hours would not have saved New Orleans): but it is of necessity a lesser concern. We all live with acts of God and the specter of disaster. We do what we can; but some of us choose to move to major earthquake zones; some of us choose to build homes in natural lahar pathways; some of us choose to live in walled cities precariously below sea level. Government cannot protect us wholesale from that danger we court. It cannot thwart the aptly-named act of God.
It can, though, pursue a band of fanatical murderers to the ends of the earth, in implicit recognition that the deaths by their hands, unlike the deaths at the hands of the anthropomorphized Katrina, are something irretrievably foul, base, and — murderous. God save those who would have a numbers game obscure that.

Share  Posted by Josh Trevino at 9:56 PM | Permalink

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