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Friday, January 06, 2006

# Posted 10:19 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

DEATH COUNT BY ANALOGY: Charles Krauthammer has a very nice tribute to Ariel Sharon in today's WaPo. But there's one small point I have to disagree with vigorously:
Israel's offer of an extremely generous peace at Camp David in the summer of 2000 was met with a savage terrorism campaign, the second intifada, that killed a thousand Jews. (Given Israel's tiny size, the American equivalent would be 50,000 dead.)
No, it's nothing like 50,000 American dead. You just can't compare casualty figures like that. One human being is one human being.

I've deliberately chosen to make this point with regard to Israeli casualties so that no one can suggest I'm being insensitive to the suffering of the dead. Because you can rest assured I'm going to make this point again when the death count-by-analogy is used to bash American foreign policy.

While writing my dissertation, I came across countless arguments that (approx.) 50,000 dead in the Salvadoran civil war was the same as 2.5 million dead in the United States because El Salvador, like Israel, is just 1/50 of our size.

I think the much better analogy would be that 1,000 dead in Israel or 50,000 in El Salvador is like the same number of dead in New York City. When 3,000 died in New York, almost everyone knew someone who knew someone who died. It was a tragedy in the family. That is the scale on which such numbers make sense.

It is also important to consider the perverse implications of death counts by analogy. What would you say if a Salvadoran or an Israeli dismissed 9/11 as no big deal because 3,000 dead in New York is like 60 dead in their country of origin?

Conversely, what if an Israeli or Salvadoran insisted that a single murder in their homeland is like 60 murders in the United States? Or 300 murders in China? Suddenly, the value of a single life in a small country becomes absurdly large. And one gunshot becomes a crime wave.

Ok, that's it. I just had to get that off my chest.
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Comments:
Thanks for that.

This is a pet peeve (or something like a pet peeve but more serious and with foundation) of mine.
 
Obviously, 1,000 dead in Israel or El Salvador or wherever is not just the same as 50,000 dead in America. There are plenty of ways in which the raw number is important (like when you're talking about the moral value of a human life). But that doesn't mean that the proportional number is completely worthless or meaningless or irrelevant. There are cases where we say that "a single murder in [Israel] is like 60 murders in the United States" - namely, when we're talking about murder rates. If you want to know how dangerous a city is, or how bad the crime is, you compare the murder rates. You don't focus on the fact that there are twice as many murders in Chicago than Detroit (to make up some plausible-sounding numbers), you talk about Detroit's higher murder rate (again, I think that's true but haven't looked it up). When you're talking about how big a crime problem a city has, or how big a terrorism problem a country has, or how difficult it will be for the people to cope with the problem, or how risky it is to be there, then the proportional number matters.

Now, this isn't to say that people always use the proportional number appropriately (there are lots of situations where people think in proportions when they shouldn't). In some cases your "compare to a more familiar polity of the same size" analogy strategy might be more apt. In other cases, though, it would sound strange to compare a country to a city. I think it would sound awkward in Krauthammer's article, for instance, even setting aside that this would involve an easily-misinterpreted-as-offensive analogy between killing Jews and killing New Yorkers. And the analogy to America often doesn't sound so bad.

What about the American Civil War? With powerful new military technology in the hands of both sides, the two dedicated sides fought an extremely bloody war. Over 600,000 Americans died, more than in any war before or since. This was about 2% of the population at the time, a number equivalent to over 5 million Americans today. Given all this bloodshed, devastation across the South, the difficulties with ending slavery, the deep-seated animosity between the two sides, and the assassination of the country's leader, you might wonder how the nation's wounds healed as well and as quickly as they did.

Was that so bad? Maybe you'd want to replace that "over 5 million dead Americans today" with something like "over 600,000 dead Californians today", which actually doesn't sound bad either, but the main point is that I find your dislike of the analogy to the current American population to be.
 
Whatcha got against Californians? ;)
 
I agree with you that a person is a person, but I have an interesting story.

In a class I had last term, population densities somehow came up, and one student in the class, whose family is from India, mentioned how during elections in India,for example, it is not uncommon for a number of people to die. Most people there hardly bat an eyelash (except for friends and family, obviously) because there's just so many people in the country. Someone else confirmed this through their own experience in India.

So there is some truth to Krauthammer's statement, but I'm still with you on the matter.
 
Whatcha got against Californians?

Nothing, as long as they die in sufficient numbers to make good analogies.
 
To add some spice to this discussion 3000 palestinians have died since 2000 due to Israeli actions. AS the palestinian populace is smaller than israel, does that make it akin to 5000 israelis and thus 250K US. I think not most people would say. This is like the counting olympic medals per capita which made Trinidad and Tobago the most successful sporting nation in Athens because it won one gold medal!
 
Krauthammer is right (and I don't usually say that).

Pet peeves aside, the per capita method of calculation validates his analysis.

Murder rates? Of course. What is terrorism anyway?
 
should we no longer discuss how badly Paraguay was decimated by war in the 19th century?
 
That's a really good point... or, in the US, it'd be about 4.892 good points!
 
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