Monday, March 14, 2011

casualty figures

(another desultory meditation)

During the first few weeks of a massive national tragedy, general chaos prevents the public from seeing the big picture clearly. Wildly fluctuating casualty figures are one byproduct of this chaos. Americans will recall the early days of the September 11, 2001 attack, a few months shy of a decade ago: no one had a clear idea how many people might have been in the twin towers when they collapsed, so early estimates of the death toll swung as high as the tens of thousands. The eventual number, just under 3000, was arrived at many months later once the dust had settled, the missing had been accounted for, and doubled-up names had been crossed off the rosters of the dead and missing.

New Zealand and Japan are going through this process now. New Zealand's count seems to have stabilized, with a final tally expected to be somewhere between 200 and 300 dead. Japan's disaster is both more recent and more chaotic, largely because of the unstable situation with the nuclear plants affected by the quake and tsunami. The number of confirmed dead seems to have passed the 1000 mark, but officials-- doubtless looking at the lists of the missing-- fear the death toll may rise to the 10,000 mark. If so, that would easily surpass the stats for the 1995 Kobe quake (over 6000, not 5000 as quoted earlier; see comments to this post).

Measuring tragedy in terms of death toll is a gruesome game, and if it's true that placing value on human life is impossible, then death tolls tell us nothing about the subjective scale of a disaster. As CS Lewis noted in The Problem of Pain, the suffering of one person can't be assigned a value x, such that two sufferers are experiencing 2x worth of suffering. All that we can measure-- and even here, we can never do it accurately-- is damage to the economy, and there's little comfort in doing that.

NB: Justin Yoshida, whose relatives may well have been affected by the disaster, links to this article showing before/after images of Japanese cities. Hover your mouse over an image and slide the cursor back and forth to "peel" back the top-layer "before" photo and see the "after" photo. A few things that struck me right away were (1) the transition from green to brown, (2) the transition from boats to no boats in those harbors, and of course (3) the destruction of all those buildings.



John from Daejeon said...

How many died in the recent Haiti and Pakistan earthquakes in comparison? It's amazing how fast people forget, especially when the people in question are poor.

If it wasn't for George Clooney, how many of us would even know of Darfur and the atrocities that are still happening there?

Kevin Kim said...

Do those disasters somehow minimize Japan's and Christchurch's? I'm not clear on what you're driving at. If you're lamenting the fact that poor countries generally get less coverage (remember the Bam, Iran quake?), then sure, we agree. But that wasn't really the point of this post, which was simply to focus on the Japan quake/tsunami disaster.

John from Daejeon said...

Since you mentioned Clive Staples Lewis and his "The Problem of Pain," I was trying to get across the point that a lot of "intelligent people" don't realize that those who happen to be poor and live lives far-removed from ours (Darfur) count just as much as those whose lives we can relate to the most when something truly awful happens in the "first world."

Sorry, if I didn't explain myself a bit better before, but judging by the media and the blogosphere, it seems that first world lives count much more than third world ones do. It's not like we actually get a choice as to where we are born on this planet of ours.

Kevin Kim said...