Bergdahl, Benghazi, and the Politics of Tragedy Inflation

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the last week, the press in the United States has devoted considerable time and effort to discussing the Obama administration’s recent prisoner exchange with the Taliban–5 Guantanamo Bay prisoners in exchange for one American prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl (who allegedly deserted his post). In 2013, the Taliban suffered 12,000 casualties to America’s 127. That’s 94.5 Taliban casualties for every lost American, or 0.01 Americans killed per Taliban militant. Even if all five released prisoners return to combat against US forces in Afghanistan, they will kill, on average, a combined 0.05 Americans before they themselves would once again be killed, incapacitated, or captured. Yet many on the right are treating the Bergdahl trade as evidence of the Obama administration’s fecklessness on foreign policy, while many on the left see the saving of this single American as a morally critical proof of America’s commitment to its citizens. This is reminiscent of the Benghazi incident, in which 4 Americans were killed by Libyan militants. That incident has sparked months of criticism of the administration from the right, which has launched inquiries and hearings about what happened and why. In both of these cases, politicians are drastically inflating the significance of these events in order to spin a narrative either that the administration is feckless or that it is noble and pure hearted.

This is Bowe Bergdahl:

He’s an American citizen, and the United States has a duty to show all of its citizens equal concern for their interests. That said, every day, in a variety of ways great and small, the United States fails to perfectly carry out its duties to its citizens. From time to time, our government makes decisions that get its citizens killed in vain, without really achieving much of anything positive for those left behind. Sometimes this happens because of poor mental health care and gun regulation, as in the Sandy Hook shooting, sometimes this happens because of poor state response to a natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, and sometimes this happens because the state mistakenly enters a war that is not in the collective interest of the citizenry, like Iraq. Whatever the cause, sometimes our state, like all other states, accidentally gets citizens killed for no good reason. When this happens, the state has made a mistake, it has enacted laws and policies that have led to some kind of national tragedy. Often times, in hindsight, we can identify these mistakes and who made them and whether or not those who made them could have or should have known better. But all governments and states accidentally cause national tragedies to happen sometimes–the question is whether or not the tragedy in question is so horrible and involves so much incompetence that our confidence in the ability of the government to lead is fundamentally called into question.

This ought to depend in large part on how bad the tragedy is, and how much worse the tragedy is than it could have been if the government had acted competently. There is a huge range of severity to national tragedies. As human beings, it is easier to understand tragedies in their totality when they are small, when they affect only a handful of people, because we can interview those individuals and learn about them and see them as human beings. When tragedies affect thousands or millions of people, we lose our ability to fully comprehend and empathize. There is an old quote, often misattributed to Joseph Stalin but whose real origins are a mystery, that encapsulates this problem:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

But as Bertrand Russell once claimed, it is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved emotionally by statistics, despite the impossibility of personal empathy with all of the individual victims. It is critically important that we see the difference between botching the Benghazi affair and invading Iraq, between invading Iraq and invading Vietnam, between invading Vietnam and starting the Civil War. American politicians launch investigations and start hearings over 4 lives, but no such effort is gone to over the 4,487 US Iraq War fatalities. Obama is vilified for Benghazi, but those who are responsible for many more American deaths often don’t have the pertinent question asked–why did these people die, and did they really have to?

To help us better understand the difference between a Benghazi and a Hurricane Katrina, I have developed the “Studebaker National Tragedy Index” (SNTI):

 Studebaker National Tragedy Index (SNTI)

 Tragedy Level  Fatalities (% of 2012 US Population)  Examples (# of US fatalities)
 1 1-10 (0.000003%)  2012 Benghazi Attack (4), 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing (5)
 2  10-100 (0.00003%)  1999 Columbine High School Shooting (15), 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre (28), 1992-1993 Intervention in Somalia (43)
 3 100-1,000 (0.0003%)  1995 Oklahoma City Bombing (168), 2012 Hurricane Sandy (286), 1990-1991 Gulf War (294)
 4 1,000-10,000 (0.003%)  2001 September 11th Attacks (2,977), 2005 Hurricane Katrina (1,833), 2003-2011 Iraq War (4,487), 2001-? Afghanistan War (2,313), 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor (2,403)
 5  10,000-100,000 (0.03%)  One Year of US Gun Violence Deaths (32,163), 1950-1953 Korean War (36,516), 1955-1975 Vietnam War (58,209), One Year of Alzheimer’s Deaths (83,494)
 6 100,000-1 Million (0.3%)  1917-1918 WWI (116,516), One Decade of US Gun Violence Deaths (320,000), 1941-1945 WWII (405,399), 1861-1865 Civil War (750,000), One Year of Cancer Deaths (574,743)
 7 1 Million-10 Million (3%) One Decade of Cancer Deaths (5.7 million), Number of African Slaves Killed in Transport & Seasoning Camps Alone (7 million)
 8  10 Million-100 Million (30%)  No modern US example. See The Black Death in the 14th Century (Killed a fifth of the world’s people) or World War II as a whole (75 million)
 9 100 Million-1 Billion (up to 100%)  No modern US example. See the Genocide of the Native Americans, which killed more than 90% of the pre-Columbian native population.

Each rise in level is accompanied by an exponential increase in death toll, such that higher level tragedies caused–or averted–utterly dwarf lower level tragedies. With this in mind, we can see that the series of Level 4 National Tragedies incurred under the Bush administration are incomprehensible in their human cost in comparison with any of the foreign policy issues that have been following around Obama and company. This is not to say that the lives of those killed at Benghazi or Sandy Hook or by Hurricane Sandy are less important, only to say that in the grand scheme of things, there is no comparing the impact of those losses to a Katrina, 9/11, or Iraq. No statesman who is responsible for a Level 4 National Tragedy can meaningfully be compared to a statesman responsible for a Level 3, let alone 2’s and 1’s. In the same way, what George W. Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan does not register next to what Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon did in Vietnam, and those US presidents’ tragedies are mere trivia in the face of the World Wars.

Thankfully, the World Wars, our most recent distinctly political Level 6 tragedies, do seem to have been genuinely necessary to prevent German domination of Europe, but in looking at this index, we get a sense of the scope of history, the number of horrible ways our government can err, and the terrible consequences that are possible. In the face of all of this, we have to ask ourselves why we are spending so much time deliberating with each other about what the administration knew about Benghazi, or about whether or not the administration should have traded 5 Guantanamo inmates for a POW when even now, every year, cancer and heart disease each inflict a death toll equivalent to World War II on the American people.

The National Cancer Institute, backed by the federal government, receives only $4.9 billion in research funds per year. In contrast, we dropped at least $4 trillion on the Iraq War. If we take the Iraq War to be ultimately part of our response to the September 11th Attacks,  it is a response to a Level 4 tragedy. If we take “cancer” to include just those killed since the September 11th attacks, we have more than a decade’s worth of cancer deaths, a Level 7 tragedy. All told, we have spent at least 816 times more money responding to a Level 4 tragedy than we have spent responding to a Level 7. That is fundamentally illogical.

Media and government capitalize on frequent low level tragedies. When our national conversation isn’t about what Donald Sterling said or what Miley Cyrus did, it’s too often on Level 1 and Level 2 tragedies. Even Level 3 and Level 4 tragedies receive too much attention relative to those above. Obesity, cancer, climate change, these are the kinds of things that lead to high level tragedies, tragedies whose cost trivializes much of our day to day political discourse. These great behemoths of death and suffering do not seem real to us, they seem at once incomprehensible and impossible to overcome, yet, when we look at how hard we’re really trying to defeat them, we see that we’ve become wholly complacent, that we’re not really trying very hard at all. And so every day, more of us continue to die as the rest of us sit idle, chattering to one another about whether or not the Bergdahl exchange means Barack Obama has a feckless foreign policy. What he really has is a feckless cancer policy, like every other president in our history.