On the way home from work tonight there was a bit of traffic coming into the city. This was unusual for that time of day – not sure why but I found myself crawling along for perhaps 20 minutes before I reached my exit. While crawling I drove under an overpass. Into the chain links of the overpass, someone had tied a sign: “2K Why?”
At first I thought it was a reference to Y2K. I didn’t get it. But I know that someone frequently ties posters with political commentary on this overpass, so I considered it a bit longer. I hadn’t had much sleep the past few nights, and my brain was working a bit slowly. But then it dawned on me: 2000 American deaths in Iraq.
I’ve always had a certain fascination for currently unknowable, but calculable, quantities. For example: how many cups of coffee have I had in my life? How many people have I met? How many times during history have people had this exact thought that I’m having right now? These are all distinct quantities, they’re questions that have answers, but they are answers that I have no way to calculate.
Here was this number: 2000. 2000 deaths. Now there’s a distinct and knowable number. But what does it mean? I have no relationship to the number 2000 – it’s just a number. 1000, 2000, 10000, 100000… they all just occur to me as “big numbers”. But how sad is that? 2000 people dead, and my only understanding of it is, “wow, that’s a big number.”
When one person dies in my life, it seems like such a huge tragedy. It affects so many people, has so many echoes in other lives… one second there’s this complicated, intricate being with knowledge and awareness and relationships and history, and the next second there’s nothing but a hole, an emptiness, a “missing”, and enough sadness to go around for weeks, months, years.
But *2000* of these events? *2000* people dying? That’s inconceivable. I can’t even imagine that much sadness, and horror, and shock, and the massive reverberations that go through the families of each of those people as they get the unexpected news. It’s like 2000 tiny atom bombs going off – affecting so many people around each event, in so many different ways. A cataclysm of grief.
It suddenly seemed so wrong, as I stared at that sign on the freeway, that these people died in service of my country, and my only relationship to their deaths is “wow, that’s a big number.”
So I had a thought. What if I could get a better grasp on this number, to really try and get a feel for the investment we’ve made as a country into Iraq. To understand the pain, the grief, the number of families affected, the marriages broken, the mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who have disappeared and left an unfillable emptiness which when considered will only ever be attached to memories of times long past.
So… I went to the bank. Two thousand pennies – twenty bucks. Fifty columns of forty pennies each. Forty deaths per state.
It’s somehow appropriate that each coin has a head, and that each coin is different. There’s a range of coins, some old and some new, some tarnished and some shiny, some light and some dark. As I set the pennies in formation I couldn’t help but think of them as a battalion. The army that has disappeared from the earth, with the faith that they were doing what was right.
It’s still a bit incomprehensible, I must say. But spend a moment thinking of the single shiny penny in the lower right. What if that was your brother? Your father? How would you feel? Now take that emotion and imagine that world for each of these two thousand pennies. Now we’re feeling a little closer to it.
But we can’t truly grasp the suffering and grief. It’s just too overwhelming. Is war – of any type – worth this loss? Isn’t it truly maddening to imagine two thousand of these intricate, incredible creatures called humans just disappearing from the earth?
Other people have been having these same thoughts. I visited this exhibit when we were closer to 1500. At the time what struck me was how sad it was that they had a sign board with removable numbers, so they could update it each day.
There are no answers here, no political statements. Just a moment of rumination. In an all-too-busy world.