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Tragedy by the Numbers

April 18th, 2007 Posted in Politics

As I write this, the top story on, Yahoo News!,, and just about every other news website is the release of a video emailed by the Virginia Tech gunman to NBC. This is breaking information, about a tragedy involving 33 deaths that happened two days ago. And if you browse through the other top stories, you might have noticed that today at least 183 people were killed in explosions Baghdad. In case you’re interested, that’s 5.45 (repeating) times more deaths, and it happened twice as recently.

People have odd reactions to tragedy. 9/11 killed under 3000, and the civil war in Congo between 1998 and 2004 killed approximately 3.8 million. You don’t hear alot of talk about a “post-Congo” world. Much of it has to do with a personal connection; Iraq, Congo, Darfur… these feel far away, filled with people who speak another language and dress another way. Virginia Tech feels close to home; it feels like it could happen at your college, at your workplace. But if we’ve learned anything important about ourselves in the last hundred or so years, it’s that our gut feelings are the product of base evolutionary instincts. As a society and as a species, we are constantly plagued by irrational reactions to all kinds of stimuli.

If we’re going to move human civilization to the next stage, we need to start thinking at a higher level. We need to train our kids to fight their urge to feel bad about poor little Timmy down the well across the country and start paying attention to the murders on their own blocks. Realizing you should feel worse about Darfur than about V. Tech is no different from realizing that the Sun doesn’t really go around the Earth; in both cases, your brain is just playing tricks on you. Remember this: no human being sees the world the way it actually is. We only get the version that comes filtered through our brains.

This V. Tech incident sucks. It’s horrible. I feel for the family and friends of those whose lives were cut short on Monday. Everyone should stop, take a second, and mourn it.

OK, there. Can we get back to talking about the thousands of civilian casualties in the Iraq war? Can we maybe do something about the 500 people dying Darfur per day?


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