Guest columnist: Reflection on tragedy needs global perspective

Dec. 19, 2012 @ 09:02 PM

Here in the United States we are yet again reeling from another mass killing, this time in an elementary school.

Yes, there was an unthinkably sad event that led to the deaths of 20 young boys and girls and six of their role models and mentors in Newtown, Conn. Some have even called that tragic Friday morning a “9-11 for schoolteachers.”

As a parent, I gave pause the following Monday as my two young girls left for elementary school, knowing that every day it is a gift to see them come smiling home, complaining about homework. But as a sociologist I know that the dust kicked up by this event will take on predictable forms.

There will be the standard calls for more gun control, more soul searching about God and the role of religion in our schools, and more laments about how we have developed a culture of violence in the media. As with Columbine and Virginal Tech and Paducah and the Amish school attack in Pennsylvania and … well, you get the picture … we will again spin the same narratives: we must do “something.”

But consider this. According to UNICEF, worldwide, “research and experience show that 6 million of the almost 11 million children who die each year could be saved by low-tech, evidence-based, cost-effective measures such as vaccines, antibiotics, micronutrient supplementation, insecticide-treated bed nets and improved family care and breastfeeding practices.”

Doing the math, that means more than 16,000 children also died last Friday in what could be called “genocide by neglect,” a phrase used by Stephen Lewis, former UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Perhaps, tragically, it needs pointing out that 16,000 deaths are every day, day after day, year after year.

No, these distant child deaths are not the same as our domestic loses on many accounts. But explain that to parents who wept as their child died in their arms of a curable disease. In most cases these children will never have a memorial, their photos displayed across the Internet, nor even a proper burial in a casket.

Why do we ignore these 16,000 children and at the same time have saturation coverage of 20? Why have we already come to know the names and faces of the victims in suburban Connecticut but rarely, if ever, learn the stories of the thousands that die each day unnoticed? How is it that we are taught that we are “all born equal” but act as if some lives are clearly more important than others?

Does distance determine for whom we should weep?

To conclude by saying that we need a world with fewer guns, more reason and a balanced set of priorities is too simplistic, perhaps. I believe that we do need to revisit our national stance on gun control. I believe we need to critically assess the role of religion in our culture.

Most importantly, I believe our priorities should be questioned when so many die unnoticed, and I plead to feeling people everywhere to consider a more inclusive, global perspective as they react to the deaths in Connecticut.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Elon University. He can be reached at arcaro@elon.edu.