Counting the Dead in Syria

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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