The invisible man

You've all heard about the massacre of almost 200 people in the Congo, on Christmas Day, 2008 right? And you know every detail of the Lebanese Army's assault on the Lebanese army’s assault on Nar el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, correct? Richard Landes had a discussion with an Oxford PhD student about how some deaths are more equal than others.

I recently had an email exchange with a PhD student at Oxford who saw my posting about the study of war casualties in which I pointed out that .06 percent of those killed in wars since 1950 died in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and .3 percent of the Muslims killed in conflicts since then were killed by Israelis. He was struck by how his colleagues could talk of nothing but Israelis killing Gazans, despite the extraordinary violence to be found the world over, much of it really intentional. As he put it in a subsequent email:

The first seminar of the term dealt with a new book, which deals with intentions, double effect and blame. Need I say that the first example (and the main one used to discuss issues of war) was Gaza? ... I was furious mainly about the fact that this was the only example discussed (while ignoring other obvious recent cases such as the war between Russia and Georgia or the Christmas massacre in DRC).

Landes got to wondering whether a metric could be developed to give the reader a sense of "weights" when reading a headline, some way of conveying the statistical significance of the headline as opposed to its prominence in the service of a meme.

What if we were to develop a method for determining the carbon footprint of civilian deaths in the media, something along the lines of column-inches, minutes airtime, people per demonstration on the one hand and number of civilian casualties on the other. One could do it across the boards, but just consider Palestinian civilian deaths: killed by Israelis, by Palestinians, by other Arabs. It wouldn’t be hard. After all, how much coverage did the civilian deaths in Hamas’ vicious take-over in 2006 receive from the media? Or after the orgy of coverage during the summer war of 2006 in Lebanon, how much coverage did the Lebanese army’s assault on Nar el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp receive?

As one of the harsher critics at this site commented: “numbers push the reality into everyone’s eyes.” Well, of course they can just as easily mislead — as in his simplistic comparison of Israeli civilian dead with Palestinian civilian dead. But I suspect that a media footprint might indeed reveal the startling imbalances of a media coverage that unquestionably has an enormous impact on public opinion the world over.

However one chooses to regard Israel, it seems that basic objectivity would make it advantageous to understand the frequency of the events that are being reported. "Man bites dog" makes interesting reading. But how often do men bite dogs?

One of the worst effects of meme-driven journalism is that it cheapens Third World deaths that are not linked to some sexy Western issue. Unless a story can be linked to a political hot button item in the West, it goes unnoticed. The Christmas Day massacre in the Congo is a perfect example. Who cares about dead Africans if you can't connect it to Global Warming or George W. Bush?

This creates a species of "invisible men"; people whose lives and deaths go unnoticed because they aren't the topic of conversations in the chic places of the world. Maybe that's the way it should be. Maybe we should be marching in indignation over the death of some Hamas operative and who gives a rat's ass anyway about a bunch of guys in the jungle? But Richard Landes' idea of getting the quantitative weights back into the picture are worth thinking about.

If Israel killed only .3 percent of all Muslims who have been died in conflicts, then who killed the other 99.7%? Maybe the reason we don't want to ask the question is we don't want to hear the answer.