The story of Anne Frank is tragic. If not for the words that she wrote in her diary, she would be a digit of history. Her diary is relatable, and the thoughts that collected inside her being during a horrible time in history gives the reader an idea of who she was. She is immortalized because of the little things that she wrote, not because of any great deeds recorded by others. As a victim of tyranny she is remembered as an innocent murdered. She is a story found inside the numbers. Thanks to her diary, we have a human figure to know and mourn, despite the mechanized bureaucratic professionals of Nazi Germany. Her name was Anne Frank, not victim c.5,780,000.
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”- Anne Frank
It would be easy to quote Stalin and his famous words regarding a single death being tragic but a million is a statistic. Such words from a man who is associated with millions of dead is perverse and also brutally honest. It is unfortunately how many of us view history and current events, where the importance of a crisis or tragedy is only valued in terms of numbers and the cost in currency or human life itself. We lost x, but they lost y, can some how scale up the perception of victory or how best to scale historical evils, based on those numbers generated.
Recently four year old Cleo Smith was found after going missing. The media and her family shared photos and told her story. At the forefront of many Australians’ minds, especially those in Western Australia, the police and volunteers searched all over for this little girl. Once she was found, social media was abound with relief, work places were full of delight. She was a human being, a precious child that was far from her family and lost to the unimaginable horrors that could befall such an innocent. In Australia around 38,000 reports of missing persons are received by the police each year. 2,600 of them remain missing for longer than three months, 150 of them under the age of 18. Such numbers can be overwhelming, impersonal while also frightening. But when one of those numbers become a living image, the community finds an energy, expresses a concern and feels fear for her safety.
Serial killers can cast an avatar of normality and friendliness that often deceives onlookers to their true nature. They may be charitable and charming. And often in the moments of their own peril, they feel fear, pain, and desperation. When captured in 1985, Richard Ramirez, “the Night Stalker,” pleaded to a policeman to protect him as he was bashed by the public that had apprehended him. His 25 innocent human victims had been tortured, raped and finally murdered. Despite his rampage of horror, including his first known victim, a nine year old girl named Mei Leung, Ramirez was married in 1996 and then again engaged to a much younger woman in 2013. During his trial he had scores of fans that wrote him and visited him. His victims became props in a narration about a villain that was adored by some.
Other murderer-rapists gained similar attention; women desiring them and men admiring their fame and body of work. Despite holding a pariah status in any society, these human beings have a fanbase who either are aroused by them as individuals or become fascinated by their crimes. The victims are scratched down as a kill count, the gruesome details in the moments leading to their deaths are discussed and romanticized with a perverse fascination. With insensitive delight the man of monstrous conduct is humanized and his victims are dehumanized as moments by which to define the murderer’s greatness.
History is full of the great figures, whose greatness was built upon a legacy of carnage and death. Thousands, and at times millions, of human beings brutally killed to satiate the will of a few, guided by a self-serving narrative and in time massaged by a historical story of generosity. Context is often the term used to dull the truth of mass murderers and the ability to omit details can at times ensure the virtuous standing of those considered great. Their victims are merely numbers, if they are admitted to have existed at all.
Would Thomas Jefferson and George Washington be as revered if we knew in intimate detail their relationship with their slaves? if we understood history from their victims perspective? Would such details change the events of their time and complicate their pretty prose about liberty? If the narrative of history was told from the truly oppressed? Perhaps it would be from their slaves where we could find a greater understanding of what freedom truly meant. A perspective of contrasts and one that is unfitting of the narrative that popular history portrays for such great men who stand at the mountain of supposed freedom and liberty, despite the realities of their time. But often the slaves owned by such men are numbered like livestock, and devalued beneath the greatness of their masters.
There is that view of history that if not for those like Winston Churchill or Julius Caesar, that no other could accomplish as much as, given similar positions and circumstances of history. That the millions of other actors surrounding their deeds were insignificant and absent of any personality or virtue. It is the fixation of personalities and the upholding of these great people over time, for better and worse that removes the responsibility from those who actually do the killing. Each Crusade or Jihad, in any guise, often seem to need a figurehead by which to lead the charge, however symbolic, even when they are far removed from the violence and deeds that become synonymous with such a cause.
Men like Hitler and Stalin are the sole monsters of their regimes and other politicians should be taken away in handcuffs by the police. It takes a radical view to understand that perhaps it is those very police who should be bound and led away by the individual citizens of a community. If not for such uniformed people, no Hitler or Stalin or any other politician for that matter could realize their perverse ideals. The victims of thousands and millions would not be possible if not for the zealots and professionals that make up mobs and armies. Each figure of that mob and army is a morally responsible actor, as unique as their many victims.
The reporting of disaster and war is often done in a way that values numbers, it is easily digestible and gives the reader intellectual ammunition or a moment to weigh up the cost against other tragedies they have no personal investment in. Usually the greater the numbers or the more those numbers relate, i.e. with nationality, ethnicity, or religion depending on the circumstances, then the higher the value of concern. The more that such an event lingers in the public’s mind the more it generates a reaction.
It is why the thousands murdered during the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States are considered to have greater value and sorrow for most in the Western world than the millions killed since in reaction. For most in the west a New Yorker has a relatable characteristic, even to someone from Australia or the other side of the United States. An Iraqi child, whether starved from an embargo or blown to pieces by bombs, has very little worth generally speaking to those same people who are so ‘appalled,’ ‘horrified,’ or ‘terrified’ when death visits those considered similar to them. It is precisely how such severe reactions and their anger, passion, and fear can be directed into such a powerful impulse that government can steer it in any way it wishes (and usually does). It is the same way inciters of terror can so easily recruit willing killers to their cause.
When that same government murders hundreds of thousands of children, the numbers are squabbled over or even omitted. At times this isn’t even done by media outlets but by the common person, since for most it is just not that important. That child is insignificant. Sure, many will claim that a child’s innocence and life are sacred for a moment, only for them to switch conversation points or to focus on another matter. When that child is known, given a name and made relatable, it becomes harder to ignore. And yet inside the civilized mind of the comfortable, such willing ignorance is the privilege that is often undervalued. It is a wealth of distance and disassociation, to support and even contribute something so deadly and impactful, while admitting little to no guilt. It is the ability to scroll on once such a truth invades the voyeur’s news feed, the choice to ignore it and move on.
Sadako Sasaki is a name that some schoolchildren may have learned about when they were told about the horrors of atomic bombs. Sadako was two years old when the U.S. government dropped an atom bomb over Hiroshima in 1945. When she was twelve Sadako fell sick, like thousands of other victims that did not die immediately from the blast. She had leukemia, one of the many outcomes from such a weapon. Sadako made origami cranes from paper in a hope to cure herself and others. Despite her illness she remained diligent in making the small cranes, attaching a wish for others with each of the hand crafted birds. She would die at twelve surrounded by approximately 1,300 cranes that she had made, some as small as a grain of rice. There is now a statue of young Sadako erected in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
“I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.”- Sadako Sasaki
Most schoolchildren in the West learned about Sadako and her cranes during the height of the Cold War. Not perhaps out of any guilt on the part of their governments and what had been inflicted upon an innocent child, but because the specter of nuclear war was ever apparent. It was a tale reminding each of us that such a fate could perhaps befall all of us if the evil Soviet Empire crossed the Elbe and waged war. It was a story that seemed to be told about us and for us, not one that was about a little girl who suffered in a miserable war won by the Western allies and their Soviet comrades.
Sadako was not born when the Japanese military raped much of China. She was not born when it attacked Pearl Harbor. And even if she was, she had no say or control over what the government that ruled her did. Just as a child born inside of a liberal democracy has no control over the actions of the government that is elected, Sadako was as fragile as one of her paper cranes when compared to the great events of history that would take her life and immortalize her name to history. She was a human being, an innocent. It is estimated that 66,000 died in the blast from the bomb detonated above Hiroshima and many thousands more died in the decades afterwards, like Sadako. Each one of them were human beings, but as subjects of a historically pariah national government they are viewed dimly. That is the perspective of the victors and those with the privilege to view history through a binary view.
It is the cold perspective of good and evil, us or them that allows incredible numbers of death to be reached. When a child is allocated to a collective, to belonging to a group that is considered the opposite, it then becomes easy to kill. To starve, burn, bayonet, shoot, or blow to pieces a small innocent child becomes from a distance a statistical outcome. It is not intimate terror or a moment of horrific violence. Instead it is an action that occurs because a greater ambition needs to be realised. That small child can be infected with leukemia or burned to a cinder while inside their cot with little regard to the suffering of their innocence.
Those making these decisions very rarely consider themselves wicked or evil. Those pulling the trigger or dropping the bombs are not doing it with the glee or delight that a serial murderer would. They are protected in their minds of any blame by a belief in a greater cause or duty. It is this belief that allows history to repeat itself with such bloody rhythm. It is done with professionalism on the grandest of scales and among the streets and villages the innocent possess a passion and derangement based upon a segregation that only war can invent. Sadako is not just a little girl who was considered a fast runner before she got sick, but just a ‘Jap.’ She needed to be punished because men she had never known raped and murdered other little girls while serving a government that imposed itself upon the land in which she was born.
Sadako Sasaki did not need to die, anymore than Mei Leung did. But because one was brutally taken by the ‘Night Stalker’ she is almost universally agreed to be considered an innocent victim, brutally murdered by a horrible man. When thousands of other children were murdered and injured by the Enola Gay their innocence and the deed is weighed up by those who will excuse the most horrific outcomes underneath the guise of context. The crew of the Enola Gay are not seen as evil men, though they murdered more women and children than Richard Ramirez. The victims become statistics, abstracts that belong in the pages of history that are used to scale the weight of war. When one peels back the layers of those numbers faces are found, lives are discovered.
When visiting the torture and murder camps of the Khmer Rouge or Nazi governments, those that remain as museums of remembrance, the many faces of the victims are on display. The human beings that suffered beneath the tyranny of collectivization and statistics, reading out raw numbers of how many were murdered is not enough. The numbers become so great that they loose value. The eyes of the victims remain as ghosts that should haunt us all these years later, for beneath those eyes was the spark of a living creature as imperfect as you and I. It is in the ability to dehumanize, to slur one with a category and to ultimately allocate one as being just another digit. That is the mentality of the central planner, those that view humanity with an inhuman logic for death and destruction while claiming order and security. There are millions more children whose names and stories we will never know. But we know Anne, Sadoko, and Mei, each of whom were girls, killed by those who looked beyond their dignity, and murdered by those who felt they had a right to do so. They were not numbers, but just innocent as are all of those buried beneath the statistics of death.