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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Attending to life and death

I’ve been both pleased and puzzled by the media coverage and public concern for the 12 youngsters and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Pleased, because any display of compassion testifies to our better natures, and compassion across national boundaries evidences a growing sense of universal human solidarity. Puzzled, because every day the lives of far greater numbers of our brothers and sisters are intentionally jeopardized, yet their plights don’t impinge on public consciousness.

For example, as long ago as October 2016, United Nations aid agencies warned that Yemen was facing mass starvation because of the prolonged U.S.-backed bombing campaign and blockade by the Saudis. This April, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the war in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 22 million people — three-quarters of the population — in desperate need of aid and protection. He said more than 8 million Yemenis “did not know where they will obtain their next meal,” and that “every 10 minutes, a child under 5 dies of preventable causes.”

There have been too many other examples of this glaring contrast between attention and disregard, between care and callousness, to seek an explanation in the unique circumstances of the two events I’ve cited. How can we explain the contrast, and what can we learn from the attempt?

Politics may be a factor, but I don’t think it’s decisive. A different factor that occurs to me is whether we’re led to believe that those in jeopardy can be saved. Even if the rescue operation is a prolonged one, the chance of a happy ending keeps the story alive in the media and thus in the public consciousness. But if there’s no end in sight, as so often seems the case with wars or famines, then the media run out of “news” and the public runs out of psychic energy to hold the sufferers in mind.

Then, there are the differing magnitudes of those at risk. Even if we don’t learn their names, we can regard 13 people as persons, individuals with futures to live out or lose. As the numbers increase, that ability erodes. Recognizing that reality has led nonprofit agencies serving large numbers of people to begin the texts of their mail appeals with one or two individual stories and, if possible, to include photographs.

War adds a unique factor, namely, that taking and losing lives is what war is about. Those who enter combat risk their lives intentionally, so when they die, it’s not personal and arresting but business as usual. Since it’s personal for the families, however, their governments tell them that their loved ones’ deaths were sacrifices (literaly, bodies made holy) for a worthy cause.

On June 27, 1969, the Luce organization, which at last realized that the war it had long supported was not a worthy cause, published in LIFE magazine the names and photographs of 242 young men, one on the cover, the rest on 11 inside pages. The story headline was “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.” It had a huge impact. For its readers LIFE had made the deaths personal and arresting, not business as usual.

Everyone has a face if we look. Everyone has a story if we listen. And if we can’t actually look and listen, we can know that it’s so, and so we can know that every time a life is needlessly lost through human action or inaction, a light goes out in the world.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.

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