Counting the Dead in Syria

For people living under constant threat of artillery fire, the question of whether 70 or 100 or even 500 thousand of their fellow countrymen have already died must seem like an abstract matter, a number wholly divorced from the urgency of the current situation. As for the decision-makers -- the uptick in the death count hasn't been enough to convince the Russians to stop arming the Assad regime, or the NATO states to enforce a no-fly zone, or create civilian safe areas along the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The war has convinced some of the Gulf States to aid certain rebel groups, and it's convinced an Al Qaeda in Iraq affiliate to take a leading role in the resistance to the regime of Bashar al Assad. But these are actions disconnected from the actual death toll -- strategic calculations, rather than purely humanitarian decisions.

In terms of political and moral impact, the difference between 70,000 or 100,000 or 500,000 deaths is disturbingly hard to identify.

Figuring out the death toll during a hot conflict has practical utility. "You actually need to have this data if you're going to have serious needs assessments for humanitarian purposes," says Mack. In terms of political and moral impact, the aforementioned difference between 70 or 100 or 500 thousand deaths is disturbingly hard to identify. The question might itself be distracting.

Samuel Moyn, a Columbia University professor and author of an intellectual history of human rights, says that death counts can have the effect of deflecting attention from the cultural and political factors that help shape society's response to atrocity. "We could think, why is this case, whether it's 60 or 70 thousand, leading us to the brink of this debate about intervention, when this really wasn't something that concerned us in other cases?" Moyn says there's a need "to make sure we're not getting misled by our outrage and our attempt to quantify," and to "think hard about what's really driving our response."

These underlying concerns could eventually convince U.S. policymakers to intervene in Syria. Or it could convince them to sit the conflict out. Moyn doesn't mean that the death count is some abstract or irrelevant issue -- just that the degree of public attention towards it feeds into and hints at other, more fundamental questions, some of which could have a direct bearing on the U.S.'s actions in Syria. "I would prefer a more open discussion that cares about individual and mass human death, but in a context that says we've already been involved [in the Middle East]," says Moyn. "Ultimately the people who are still alive and what kind of regime they get in the long run is what matters."

The people who are already dead matter too, for reasons that transcend exigency or politics; reasons that are grounded in morality, but are hardly abstract. They matter because every person matters -- and, by extension, every death matters.

Paradoxically is hard to explain how or why this is -- to articulate the moral urgency of counting the dead -- without retreating into the abstractions of religion, poetry, or philosophy. But Moyn pointed me to a wrenching passage in Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, the Yale Professor's acclaimed history of Hitler and Stalin's atrocities in central Europe in the 1930s and 40s, that at least tries:

Cultures of memory are organized around round numbers, intervals of ten, but somehow the remembrance of the dead is easier when the numbers are not round, when the final digit is not a zero. So within the Holocaust, it is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Tebrlinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes hung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann....

Within the history of mass killings in the bloodlands, recollection must include the one million (times one) Leningraders who starved during the siege, the 3.1 million (times one) distinct prisoners of war killed by the Germans in 1941-1944, or the 3.3 million (times one) distinct Ukrainian peasants starved by the Soviet regime in 1932-1933. These numbers will never be known to precision, but they include individuals, too: peasant families making fearful choices, prisoners keeping each other warm in dugouts, children such as Tania Savicheva watching their families perish at Leningrad....

The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, some of which we can only estimate, some of which we can reconstruct with fair precision. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and put them in perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.

The people counting the dead in Syria are human rights observers, scientists and mathematicians -- not poets and humanists. The numbers they come up with will not be perfect. But the first step in "turning the numbers back into people" is having a number in the first place.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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