Do you remember how many people died in the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007 or the Columbine massacre of 1999? Or, for that matter, the shootings on the University of Texas campus in 1966, the horror of an earlier time?
You are forgiven if you don’t know the answers – 32, 13 and 14, respectively. You’re probably not alone. There are too many horrors, too many victims, to recall all the details.
Too many numbers.
When more than a handful of innocent victims fall on a single day in a murder spree, especially when they are not celebrities, “mass murder” overwhelms the concept of individual deaths. The body count becomes the headline; the names become largely forgotten in the news cycle, outside of each person’s community or family.
“One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin, responsible for millions of deaths of his own people in the last century, reportedly said.
Whether or not he said those words, the sentiment is a reality.
This changes when the victims – or most of them, at least – are children.
This happened in Newtown, Conn., the other day.
One demented person took the lives of 26 people, 20 children, mostly six-year-olds, among them.
This time, the victims had names. And faces.
This time, we paid attention to individuals.
One of the most poignant parts of President Obama’s eulogy at the Newtown memorial service was his recitation, slowly, of each victim’s name – often prompting tears from the mourners. On television news reports, and on the radio, the most prominent number often was one – each person’s unique life fleshed out in detail – instead of 26. We learned who liked the N.Y. Giants, who was a budding artist, who had a ready smile, who danced from classroom to classroom.
This time, the tragedy did not become a statistic.
Jewish tradition, which discourages narcissism, also emphasizes the primacy of an individual’s worth in the grand scheme of the universe. The Kotzker Rebbe, an early chasidic leader, advised his followers to reach a balance between declaring that “The world was created (just) for me” and “I am (only) dust and ashes.”
Each man and woman, Judaism teaches, is a universe. “He who saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.”
In the decades after the Holocaust, after the loss of Six Million, the focus turns to the One, to individual stories – to people who survived, to people who died, to people who saved others.
That will help ensure that the Shoah isn’t “just” a statistic.
Every story makes an individual connection.
In our national mourning for Newtown, our political leaders and journalists learned – and taught – this lesson. They treated the victims’ lives with due respect. By telling the names and stories of the shooter’s victims, our opinion leaders delivered the right message – that the most important number was one, each individual’s life, not 26.