Recently in the Australian state of Victoria, four police officers died in a tragic crash.They will forever be mourned. As police officers, by default in death, they are heroes. The news finds a moment to report on the event with sorrow. They are human beings, sons, brothers, a sister, a daughter, mates. Their uniform and the organisation that they serve elevates them above the common citizen. Surrounding the report of their deaths are the statistics, the COVID-19 deaths. The many who have died with and of the coronavirus are numbers, a statistic to be touted and to be discussed casually and with expertise.
This is common. Even such pages as Antiwar.com have a section dedicated to U.S. military deaths. Those who die are usually reported as a man or woman, a human being. Their death is given a digital place for a time to be remembered; they have their garden of stones even on an anti-war website. Yet above are numbers, the many hundreds, thousands and ultimately millions of nameless human beings who are taken by war, disease, and policy. They are just collected data that is used as a punchline or to make a point, often ignored, so that martyrs may be remembered in glory somewhere else.
What raises a life over others? Why is it that an innocent, one who laughed, cried and had so many tender moments inside their own lifetime, however short, simply becomes lost? They are scenery to a reader who is interested in the meta drama of conflict, whether it is inside a pandemic or a war where they are drowned beneath so many other bodies. But then an often-armed enforcer of the state, whether military or police, is venerated, sometimes even by those who question the legitimacy of their conduct. They are called a public servant; they are assumed to be a defender of the society from which they come. They are heroes. But really, many of them are just doing a job without moral concern. Mercenaries for policy. Paid to implement incoherent goals and prohibitions that always lead to unintended consequences, even for those that they serve.
Many are mercenary in their professional zeal. They are indifferent to the laws and policies that carry their interactions with the citizenry or strangers in faraway lands. They are paid to enforce policy, domestic and foreign. It does not matter if they agree or not, whether they break laws themselves or if their views change months or years afterwards. In that moment, they were the reason why those statistics lost to time were so great. They are the ones who make a dictator powerful, a government brutal, and should there be moments of benevolence, it is at times married with incompetence.
In instances when the suffering from trauma and PTSD is revealed, it is the veteran who is humanised in their suffering. Those whose homes they visited are lost, the trauma and pain that lingers inside of the broken minds that belong to statistics are ignored. They do not have a VA or concerned media that reaches for their health with any concern. Instead they are props of war. Ignored, they must make do with their own community however battered and bruised it is left from conflict and sanctions. Left by those who have returned home to be, in some cases, heroic victims of their own.
The many poisons that only a military would inflict on entire nations tend to have a wider toxicity. South East Asia still reels in mutated misery thanks to the many defoliants sprayed across its jungles and villages. Commonly known as Agent Orange (yet there were more coloured agents), the legacy for those who live in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fester like a terrible stew that harms the living and those yet to be born. It is not enough that they should suffer from the left behind chemicals, but millions of unexploded bombs and mines continue to blast the limbs from children and take the lives of those who happen to come across the decades old munition dropped by a nation that has moved on to other wars. Chemicals and weapons of war devised by great scientific and engineering minds, dropped and laid by uniformed professionals, heroes and experts of a great civilisation against farmers and peasant warriors.
In Laos alone it is estimated that over 80 million unexploded ordinance remains inside the small nation. During the 1990s, 200-300 human beings died annually to the bombs left behind. Today it is around 50 people a year, with countless being maimed. The terror and fear to walk on one’s own farm land grips many. Those still suffering are meaningless to the national government that brutalised the lands of Asia. With no declaration of war or cause for such a horrible act, Laotians continue to suffer. The elites of the technowar are long retired. None faced trial or serious condemnation. They served a cause and thousands of innocent statistics died. The names of those U.S. service people who visited South East Asia for the American War are trapped for all history on an impressive wall, as heroes.
The modern curse of depleted uranium (which when oxidised and finds its way inside the human body, whether through ingestion or breathing) has a horrible and often deadly effect. It has left a toxic wake of cancer and death, especially affecting children in each of the countries that it has been fired upon. From Serbia to Afghanistan, the innocent continue to come across this weapon. Those who have been affected by it grow in numbers. The cover up of such a deadly effect continues, and much like Agent Orange those who conceal and helped to develop, not to mention used the weapon, will never be questioned for their complicity in creating so many statistics.
People die in war. We are told time and time again. People die in pandemics. Yet, the indifference to the numbers are harder to express when those who may die are closer to home. When it was the Hong Kong Flu or even Avian flu, it was the Chinese who mostly did the dying. When it was Ethiopians or Biafrans starving it was a moment, as Adam Curtiss put it, to sigh ‘oh dear’ but people die. But when it is those who are from our homes that are dying and may die it is desperate. The experts who can without compassion disregard the foreign and distant dead are suddenly sought to calculate what is acceptable to save lives at home. Any extreme is accepted even if that means surrendering freedom.
It is after all freedom, in some perverse definition, that those millions of innocent civilians were killed for. Theirs, ours. It was after all a freedom that the police were in some way protecting. What exactly that freedom is, is rarely defined. Freedom from fear, crime, tyranny, communism, bondage, rape, murder and more. A virus does not seek any conquest for ideology, only for its own self interest on the most basic of biological grounds. It is indifferent. It only grows and yet now that a virus grips the world and spreads its own pile of statistical dead, in some places there is no sacrifice that is not enough to prevent it from taking more lives. We are now facing a war on a virus, but like other wars—on terror, drugs, poverty and so on—those in charge have time and time again revealed an incompetence and a vulgar delight in wielding power for these wars.
It is through fear and self-interest that decisions are often made. No wisdom or reason guides it. It is with the same self-righteousness that determines that depleted uranium can be used outside of its original intention, that it can be used on civilian dense areas. It is the same desperation of the moment that would poison an entire region with Agent Orange, with no long-term regard for the legacy left. It is the same contemporary sacrifice that would detonate two atomic bombs above cities full of civilians. It was expediency. and apparently made sense to some at the time. Those dead, those who had to die became numbers. It is also now the same decision to shut down economies and deny freedom to individuals because of a virus that is still not entirely understood.
The reaction to the inhuman virus is and will kill many, seen and unseen. But they will become numbers. The heroes, those who are forever enforcing the idiotic but always deadly means of policy, will be rarely questioned. Their deaths will be honoured and their efforts, obeyed and cheered. Those who suffer are somehow acceptable. They will die in silence or as another number. Those who tinker inside the laboratories can make atomic bombs, defoliants, and even vaccines. The deaths are data points, acceptable when identity is removed. The distance of their talents allows them to tinker with life and death without passion or reason, only professionalism. A cure is as important to some as weaponizing the virus itself, which may have even come from a laboratory in the first place. Those creating the cure and poison are venerated, their mistakes and victims alike are trapped in agony and death. They are the experts regardless, sought after, unelected guides in any tragedy. The experts can shut down parts of hospitals and decide which treatment is and is not allowed, while they are curbing COVID-19 they are increasing the deaths of other illness. It is a calculation of numbers to them, not of human beings.
Ultimately the pandemic, like all things that collect human life in the most terrifying manner, reveals that some human beings ascend above others in the minds of not just the elites, but the mob itself. So, when those numbers drop or climb, they are people, real. And when real people who happen to wear a uniform are mourned publicly with state and celebratory honours, they are just numbers that once made up an army of willing servants who in some way make every deadly policy possible. Innocence is not a statistic. Obedience, however, makes you a number. Perhaps if we stopped turning the paid killers and enforcers into martyrs and stopped leaving the unnamed millions of victims as mere statistics and reversed the perspective then perhaps we would not need to bury so many of both. The four police officers, they will likely be heralded alongside those fallen in Australian wars as the nation celebrates ANZAC day. They will be mourned by a nation not for who they were as people but because of the profession that they chose.
Every crisis is complicated. It is dangerous. Those who don the uniform do so knowing the stakes. They take those risks whether for a belief or because it is a career. They are not saints or superheroes; they are human beings. Those who suffer because of policy have no say, they are victims in the purest sense. Those who wear the lab coat and degree, whether from a desire to heal or because it is a puzzle to solve or even a path to wealth, are not omnipotent, they are not a God. They are flawed, and the calculations that they make serve policy makers, in failure and success. Often it is career and their own self-interest that transcends above any concern for the suffering numbers. Because if they do not comply and serve they will be punished and discarded and another more willing will take their place. Them versus Us only becomes apparent when one is granted super rights above others and when those who stand to lose the most are forced to obey and abide regardless and are ultimately just a statistic too.