Eight ways to allow 3,000 people to die: a lesson in moral clarity

January 10, 2007 | By | 17 Replies More

President Bush is going to send more than 20,000 more troops into Iraq and spend billions of more dollars to carry on a hideous war. Why?  To protect Americans from terrorists, he tells us.  Bush convinced Americans to invade Iraq by accusing Iraq of being responsible for the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 Americans.  This argument suggests that the deaths of 3,000 people is a horrible thing.

Whenever 3,000 people die, it is a horrible thing.  It might justify hundreds of billions of dollars, though certainly not the diversion of money from programs that save equal numbers of lives. 3,000 deaths justifies the deaths of more than 3,000 soldiers, we are told.  I don’t agree with this. The political party that argues that there are clear moral rules (the Republicans) isn’t convincing me.

Does it make a difference that 3,000 innocent Americans die on the same day rather than over the course of a year?  I wouldn’t think so.  A death is a death, in my opinion.  And 3,000 deaths are 3,000 deaths.

Therefore, shouldn’t the 16,000 murders that occur every year in the US require a response five times bigger than the invasion of Iraq?   That’s 3,000 every ten weeks.  Shouldn’t it require focused efforts to protect these victims?  Shouldn’t it require a revamping of our entire criminal justice system, especially our prison system, which so often trains criminals to be even more vicious, rather than preparing them for ready for release? Where is our war on criminal violence? It is certainly justified by looking at the widespread death caused by murderers.

Or what should we do about a silent killer that kills 1,500 Americans every day. That’s 3,000 every two days.  Shouldn’t that get our focused and unrelenting national attention?  Lance Armstrong discussed this killer today: cancer.  What are our leaders doing about cancer?  Worse than nothing. Listen to Armstrong, a cancer survivor who has dedicated his energies toward developing cures to cancer:

Cancer will impact one in two men and one in three women in their lifetime. It is devastating and it is pervasive. In fact, every year 1.3 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer.

The medical advances achieved by our nation’s best doctors and researchers have given us reasons to hope.  But in spite of this vast body of knowledge, 1,500 people will die from cancer today and tomorrow and the day after that, often because the care they needed to prevent cancer or survive it was not available to them.

However, our nation’s second-leading killer did not make the list of issues that our candidates used to get people to the polls last November. Anyone with a television or access to a newspaper can list the ballot box issues that occupied our candidates’ attention — they range from bickering to very real concerns and challenges.

The political ads didn’t tell voters that earlier in the year funding for cancer research was cut for the first time in 30 years. Nor did they explain that a lack of funding slows the pace of scientific discovery and the development of treatments. Our candidates did not mention the decrease in funding for programs that provide information and screening to people who need these services. I think this is unwise, but it is what our government has done this past year. I waited patiently for an explanation, some clarification or justification. Ten million cancer survivors deserve an answer. We didn’t get one.

[Emphasis added].

One small segment of the annual lethal cancers, those dying from colon cancer in Wisconsin, equals the total number 9/11 deaths.  It happened this year and it will happen again next yearGrumpypilgrim (a Wisconsin resident) wrote about this in an earlier comment:

To put 3,000 in perspective (the number that died five years ago from the worst terrorist attack in US history — an outlying data point from a statistical perspective): that’s how many people die annually in Wisconsin from colon cancer. I don’t see anyone in Washington calling for a “war” on colon cancer in Wisconsin.

Bush and his supporters are utterly convinced that all abortions are murder, they say, because killing is killing, they say.  But that is not clear at all-just ask 59% of the people from South Dakota.  And what about failing to focus the National energies and resources to find cures to cancer?  What is it when you cut funding for cancer research when 1,500 people are dying every day? Isn’t that murder?  If you’re looking for moral clarity, is there a better example?

Or how about deaths caused by motor vehicle crashes?  Every four weeks there are 3,000 such deaths. Many of those people could be saved through lower speed limits and better mass transit.   Every two weeks, alcohol wipes out more than 3,000 people. Every three days, poor diet and physical inactivity kill more than 3,000 people.   Diesel pollution causes 3,000 premature deaths every year in California alone.  We can prevent many or most of these deaths without expensive weapons and without having our soldiers blown up half way around the world.

3,000 is 3,000.  No discussion of Iraq is complete without a concurrent discussion of other ways we could save comparable numbers of lives.   Iraq is, and always was, a domestic issue.  Except for those people who refuse to think.

Or maybe a problem is not a real problem unless you can pretend to deal with it by A) making criminals out of pregnant women or B) destroying large numbers of Iraqi civilians with bombs and bullets.  Is there better proof that this nation is afflicted with innumeracy?


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Category: Good and Evil, Iraq, Politics, Reproductive Rights, The Middle East, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. Scholar says:

    Here is a great website for tracking various statistics about countries and states such as population, death rate, murders, religions, economics. The information is amazingly plentiful and detailed. Here is the link…

    and for an example of the awesome power of statistics…

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    To expand on the excerpt Erich mentioned, the following is another of my comments that help put 3,000 deaths in perspective. In response to http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=397/, I wrote:

    "The reality is that the death of 3,000 people is something we ignore every single day. As I pointed out in the post Erich mentions, 3,000 people die annually of colon cancer in Wisconsin — every single year — and life goes on. Every year, 100,000 people die from human errors in hospitals — every single year — and life goes on. Every year, 60,000 people die from pneumonia — every single year — and life goes on. Every year, 400,000 people die from cigarettes — every single year — and life goes on. In the scheme of things, the 3,000 people who died on 9/11 are a DROP IN THE BUCKET compared to all the other things that kill Americans. The probability that an American will die from a terrorist attack is less than the probability that he or she will die from colon cancer in Wisconsin. Yet look at how our nation has reacted: hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of innocent lives (American, British, Iraqi, etc.) spent to invade a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack.

    "Let me anticipate the neocon objection: what about the next terrorist attack that destroys a whole city? My answer: hurricane Katrina destroyed a whole city and life still goes on. Hurricanes Floyd, Andrew, Wilma, etc., destroyed whole cities and life still goes on. Hurricane Mitch changed the landscape of Honduras so much that entirely new maps of the country were needed, and life still goes on. The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 destroyed a whole city and life still goes on. The 2004 tsunami destroyed dozens of cities across the globe and killed hundreds of thousands of people, and life still goes on. The nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed entire cities, and life still goes on.

    "My point is not to trivialize the threat posed by terrorists — destroying two skyscrapers or blowing up ten jetliners in one day is obviously a very bad thing — but to suggest that terrorism is the greatest threat America faces and that it should be our nation’s top priority is, by any *objective* measure, completely ridiculous. Unfortunately, Americans have been so emotionally disturbed by the potential severity of a terrorist attack…that they have distorted their thinking about how to assess the threat. Of course, it’s not entirely their fault: the neocons have been feeding America a steady diet of lies and propaganda to exaggerate fear and foster paranoia about terrorism, because doing so directly benefits the neocon agenda.

    "The solution is for people to try harder to set aside their emotions and look more objectively at the actual threat posed by terrorists, relative to all the other threats and risks that each of us faces. When more Americans realize that they are far more likely to die in a car accident while driving to work, than to die from an international terrorist attack, they will go a long way toward dealing effectively with terrorism and avoiding gigantic mistakes such as the one in Iraq."

  3. coling says:

    I was 100% with you until you said "Many of those people could be saved through lower speed limits." There are too many reputable research papers that refute this, or say any detected increase is statistically insignificant now.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Over the years, I have read a number of reports that increased highway speed limits result in more deaths. But based on coling's comments I did some additional research. The results appear to be mixed, contrary to what I suggested in the post.

    This site shows that increased highway speed limits result in more highway deaths

    How has abolishing the national speed limit affected fatalities? Institute studies show that deaths on rural interstates increased 25-30 percent when states began increasing speed limits from 55 to 65 mph in 1987. In 1989, about two-thirds of this increase — 19 percent, or 400 deaths — was attributed to increased speed, the rest to increased travel.

    A 1999 Institute study of the effects of the 1995 repeal of the national maximum speed limit indicates this trend continues. Researchers compared the numbers of motor vehicle occupant deaths in 24 states that raised speed limits during late 1995 and 1996 with corresponding fatality counts in the 6 years before the speed limits were changed, as well as fatality counts from 7 states that did not change speed limits. The Institute estimated a 15 percent increase in fatalities on interstates and freeways.

    A separate study was conducted by researchers at the Land Transport Safety Authority of New Zealand to evaluate effects of increasing speed limits from 65 mph to either 70 or 75 mph. Based on deaths in states that did not change their speed limits, states that increased speed limits to 75 mph experienced 38 percent more deaths per million vehicle miles traveled than expected — an estimated 780 more deaths. States that increased speed limits to 70 mph experienced a 35 percent increase, resulting in approximately 1,100 more deaths.

    On the other hand, check out this site:

    Following last year's raising of the Iowa's maximum speed limit from 65 to 70 MPH, the number of road fatalities in the state has fallen. Traffic deaths for 2006 are estimated to be 440 — equal to the number of deaths twenty years ago. Last year, the number of deaths stood higher at 450.

    Raising the speed limit had a negligible effect on the average speed of motorists on Iowa's rural interstates. A comparison of speeds from three months before the limit change (April-June 2005) to three months after (July-September 2006) shows an increase of only 1.6 MPH.

  5. Scholar says:

    Can one of you kind atheists please go to http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com and let "Kurt" (some kind of religious ex-park ranger) know that it is not okay to promote creationism on the internet. I got banned or something, so you may need to tread (more) lightly.

    His point of view is that it is okay for people who visit the park to leave under the assumption that it is relatively "young" and probably the result of the "flood". Further, he supports selling the new Young Earth book at the National Park information booths. Here is a review of the book by a science professor…


    Could one of you gentle atheists please relay the above book review link to the evil Kurt Repanshek at http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com

    Don't mention my name or he probably won't post what you write…

    Thanks, much obliged,

    –your friendly neighborhood *scholar*

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    The traffic studies that Erich cites, and the ones that coling doesn't cite, appear to be very dubious. They show only a *correlation* between highway fatalities and speed limit changes; they say nothing about *causation*. For example, many factors could account for the relative decrease in traffic fatalities in Iowa in 2006: high gasoline prices, for instance, might have caused people to drive fewer miles and, thus, have fewer accidents; maybe the population of Iowa decreased, so there were fewer cars on the road; maybe Iowa improved its roads in preparation for the higher speed limits; maybe the road maintenance was better for the same reason; maybe global warming meant fewer days of dangerously icy roads…the list goes on.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    As regards Bush's troop surge in Iraq, I have not paid close attention to all the rhetoric coming from the Administraion this week, but I have yet to hear anyone describe Bush's "new plan" or explain why the troop increase is needed. So far, Bush's "new plan" appears to be nothing more than Bush's "old plan" plus about 15% more troops that none of his generals had requested. This is very troubling, because Bush has had many weeks to invent a plan around his idea for a troop surge, yet he still appears to not have one. It is bad enough that he put the cart before the horse by announcing a troop surge before actually having a plan for why he needs one, but to have no new plan after saying for the past few weeks that he would not have a troop surge without a new plan seems likely to be a recipe for disaster.

  8. Deb says:

    I am not an atheist, and would like to point out that you don't have to be an atheist to follow and trust in scientific facts, such as the age of the canyon. I'll be happy to complain about the misinformation on the web site, but it is because I know how to think, not because I don't believe in a creator.

  9. Scholar says:

    About the troops, I heard that the increase was due to the unforseen problem of imposters infiltrating the Iraqi police force. All that we need now is a new cute name for the war…I was kinda leaning toward "Operation Safe Haven".

    In terms of traffic deaths, I believe that the general consensus (and evidence) is that higher speed is more dangerous. I was almost killed in an accident, it was a miracle that I was wearing my seatbelt, or else I would be a bug on the winshield of a schoolbus. We were just out of school for the day, and by brother sped down a hill (about 45 mph probably), began to sqeal the tires a bit, then tried to over-correct, and the wheels regained traction too suddenly, and we shot across the double yellow line into a bus. The impact was enough to make me think I was already dead or seriously injured. I broke my thumb in the handrest and had bruising across my chest where the seatbelt was. The car was smashed to hell, I went to the hospital in an ambulance and stayed for a night. Excessive speed (and a sprinkle of testosterone) was the reason for the crash which I will never forget. My brother also survived, thanks to the driver airbag, and crumple zone, and seatbelt. Many people would not have survived a head-on with a bus, we were lucky it was only moving about 20mph.

  10. grumpypilgrim says:

    Scholar writes: "…it was a miracle that I was wearing my seatbelt…."

    I wish people would stop using the word "miracle" in casual conversation, unless what they describe truly is miraculous. Unless Scholar's seatbelt buckled *itself*, the fact that Scholar was wearing a seatbelt was not a miracle. Unlikely, perhaps, but not miraculous.

    Sorry to be a stickler about this, but I believe over-use of this word leads too many people to conclude, incorrectly, that "miracles" happen frequently, leading many of them to try to convince others that an imaginary god is responsible.

  11. Scholar says:

    Sorry about the generalizations Deb. I need to remember that many people still haven't quite grasped that God is "for the birds". Are you saying that you do believe in God? Or do you choose not to think about it? Please don't feel obligated to respond, but I am a bit confused to say the least, and would appreciate some clarification of your last post.

    Also, it turns out that "Kurt" (nationalparkstraveler.com) and I are now trying to make ammends. It seems that his website is really mostly just about the parks, and he was just trying to drum up some controversy/traffic with a few posts about religion vs science. He obviously didn't realize that there are *scholars* out there who are quick to condemn any supporters of creation. Especially when it comes to downplaying the scientific explanations of geologic time and the formation of natural geologic features such as the Grand Canyon.

  12. Devi says:


    It means I don't know, but one thing sticks out that science doesn't explain (at least, as yet). Where did it all come from? No matter how far you go back, something started the process. There is apparently some beginning, something that caused carbon, something that caused the big bang or whatever, so where did that come from? Something can't come from nothing, unless science itself is wrong (i.e. spontaneous generation).

    At the same time, while I do not believe there is a controlling hand in the events of the world or even in my life, there is some sort of energy that connects everything. I would not call that god, but I do call it life. Even a rock has electrons that spin around, etc., and for lack of a better word, I call that life. So I guess that makes me an animist, if titles are necessary.

    My biggest problem, by far, is people that think they do have the answers. That means they think everybody else is wrong, and then they mistreat, or at the very least condescend, to everything and everybody that is 'wrong.'

    Remember what Twain (or was it Will Rogers?) said, "it ain't whut ya do know that gits ya inter trouble, it's whut ya know that jest ain't so." (or words to that effect).

  13. Devi says:

    I should also add that your comment "many people still haven't quite grasped that God is 'for the birds'" puts you squarely into the camp of those who claim they know the answer.

  14. Scholar says:

    Deb, I do not know (all) the answers. I just have a hunch, a 99.9 percent hunch. When I come upon questions like the one you pose about the origin of the universe, I become curious and search for answers, but I have completely ruled out a "sentient" or "intelligent" creator. Many, many, many other questions have been answered by science, even ones which were once deemed "unknowable". Have you seen the latest hubble pics, they came out this week, simply breathtaking…

    And here is a link to Hawking that I have not yet explored, please join me in the quest for (all) the answers…

    Grumpy, in terms of "miracles", I prefer to continue using the term as I please, as well as the rest of the English language. One point of view is that we can desensitize people to words like miracle and heaven and bless by using them as we please. I would consider it a defeat if I had to start biting my tongue all of a sudden. I have read some your posts about language, and I agree with what I see. When I use the word "miracle" in everyday speech, it can have 2 meanings, one being an "actual miracle as performed by God", the other being a scathingly sarcastic "gee what slim odds". It could be akin to how the creationists use one form of the word "theory", thus confusing the issue (except they often don't have knowledge of the second meaning). An effective smoke and mirror tactic, as we have seen. Further, the word "miracle" probably has different levels of meaning to me than to someone who has "faith". When I use the term "miracle" I am very sarcastic, unless the rare instance I am discussing biblical mythology. I thought it was obvious from my post, but in hindsight, sarcasm can be difficult to detect in print.

  15. Scholar says:

    Devi, this is how Stephen M. Hawking (and I) feel about science, sorry if I sound conceited, it is one of my many talents. 🙂

    "All my life, I have been fascinated by the big questions that face us, and have tried to find scientific answers to them. If, like me, you have looked at the stars, and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist. The questions are clear, and deceptively simple. But the answers have always seemed well beyond our reach. Until now.

    "The ideas which had grown over two thousand years of observation have had to be radically revised. In less than a hundred years, we have found a new way to think of ourselves. From sitting at the center of the universe, we now find ourselves orbiting an average-sized sun, which is just one of millions of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. And our galaxy itself is just one of billions of galaxies, in a universe that is infinite and expanding. But this is far from the end of a long history of inquiry. Huge questions remain to be answered, before we can hope to have a complete picture of the universe we live in.

    "I want you to share my excitement at the discoveries, past and present, which have revolutionized the way we think. From the Big Bang to black holes, from dark matter to a possible Big Crunch, our image of the universe today is full of strange sounding ideas, and remarkable truths. The story of how we arrived at this picture is the story of learning to understand what we see."


  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's Lance Armstrong speaking out strongly in favor of cancer research, including stem cell research. Whenever 1,500 people die of cancer every day, it's a "moral issue" according to Armstrong, and we have an obligation to do something about it. http://video.msn.com/v/us/msnbc.htm?g=dafc474f-38

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    If you want to go after the number one killer in the U.S., Lance Armstrong has the obvious answer. But most of the candidates for President aren't interested in disussing it publicly:

    "Listen, all I can go on is what they tell us: scheduling conflicts," Armstrong said. "We all know where they are. But what is more important than the No. 1 killer in the country?


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