Monday, 29 September 2008


i wasn't going to post tonight, but it seems that the subject of death continues to be a theme. there was the death of paul newman, and yes, i'll admit to being a fan. well not so much that i could remember any more than 4 of the movies he's been in when the kids asked who he was. but a fan nonetheless, with the wistful thought that they sure don't make 'em like they used to.

i'm also a fan of his wife, joanne woodward. again, couldn't name you many of her starring roles. the one i remember most was her role as candida in the george bernard shaw play, which she did so well that i had tears in my eyes when watching it (on television, not so lucky as to ever have seen her perform in person). she always seemed to me to be one of those incredibly talented people who were held back because of a more famous spouse.

so mr newman is gone. and there have been many words said by many people in tribute. today's paper has a large article, i'd say about a quarter of a page, devoted to the words of robert redford and the clintons and various other persons of note. and very much deserved, i'm sure, given the amount of charitable work he did. not just a pretty face, as the saying goes.

just below this rather substantial article were a couple of short paragraphs, under a rather small headline, informing us that 11 people had died in baghdad from bombings during ramadan. 11 people were worth 2 paragraphs. we didn't even get to know their names, or how old they were or what their occupations may have been. we didn't get to hear anything about them, because they were just more casualties in that conflict, part of a much bigger number of deaths.

and there really isn't room in the paper to mention them all, and to hear what their colleagues and neighbours might have had to say about them. they weren't famous, they weren't people we have come to know through public exposure. they may have been noble and charitable too, they may have carried out acts of extreme courage in war-ravaged country, but we didn't get to hear about that.

i asked myself again, as i do so often, what a human life is worth. we all know that some lives are worth more than others, in terms of the amount of time we bother to spend thinking about them. but what scares me is this: because we don't get to hear the details of these other deaths, we can ignore them. all we have is the number 11. a number that has no face, no humanity. because we don't see them, nor see their families, it becomes easier not to care. we learn to accept the deaths as a fact of life in that part of the world, we dissociate ourselves, and so the situation continues.

we feel for austin hemmings, as we should. here was a death that merited a big article on the front page of the paper, with a family photograph and a life story. we identify with mr hemmings because he is one of us, a fellow kiwi. we feel anger, and we demand that something be done. we'll write letters to the paper, we'll talk about it over the tea break. we will spend some time thinking about that poor man's family and what they must be suffering.

but those other 11, who also had families? well they're too far away and too foreign for us to care so much. but the point is that we might have cared, if we had the photographs and the life stories; if we had seen with our eyes the pain and suffering. by failing to share those stories with us, the media are depriving us of the chance to identify with those victims and to feel the urge to take some action to secure the well-being of those they left behind.

we heard all about the shooting in finland, of 10 innocent deaths as part of that horrific tragedy. we saw the grief of that nation and heard much about the potential political impact on gun laws. we saw the lighted candles and the flowers for the victims, and we could identify with them and grieve with them. but in iraq, they are facing that number of deaths every month, in baghdad alone.

i remember a friend of mine who lived visited tunisia around 2004. she stayed for a couple of months. she told me that every night, the family would watch the news in tears. they'd cry every night, because they were getting the full report of what was happening in iraq. they felt the full force of the tragedy. we didn't, and we still don't.

if you didn't listen to it this morning, please take the time to listen to this interview on radio nz this morning. in fact, please listen to it more than once, because it deserves your attention. it's an interview with james orbinski, a canadian doctor who volunteered for the group "doctors without borders". he spent time in somalia and rwanda, and the stories he has to tell bring humanity to the meaningless numbers that we see in our papers.

so farewell, paul newman. your going is a loss to the world, and your example an inspiration to many. farewell also to those other 11. and to all the victims of war and famine. inna lillahe wa inna ilaihe raji'oon.


Ben R said...

"it becomes easier not to care. we learn to accept the deaths as a fact of life in that part of the world, we dissociate ourselves, and so the situation continues."

It probably doesn't attract the in depth coverage it might because like you say, it's not local, and also it's essentially in a warzone so doesn't have the surprise/novelty factor that newspapers seem to go for.

Doesn't make it any less tragic for those affected of course.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite songs rigth now has the lyric Thou shalt give equal worth to tragedies that occur in non-English speaking countries as to those that occur in English speaking countries.

I have a friend who works in the DRC who often ponders this. Often tragic events there don't even appear our media