When statistical people die real deaths

The following blog was originally published on my own blog site (www.halftheglass.com) on June 11, 2018. I did not intend to republish it here, but after reading a number of excellent blogs posted in the last few days by Times of Israel bloggers concerning the plight of the children that are being separated from their parents by US Customs and Border authorities, I realized that there is value in doing so.

While the blog deals most directly with how we relate to “statistical people” in life-and-death situations, the concept is very relevant and suitable for addressing the plight of these nameless and vulnerable children and their parents. It was written for a general audience (i.e. not a specifically Jewish one), but is based on Jewish ideals that my parents handed down to me as a child – the right of each and every person to pursue a life of happiness and fulfillment, free from persecution and discrimination … and the most basic of rights – to be recognized as an individual of flesh and blood, deserving of human compassion and consideration, a person with a name!

When statistical people die real deaths

How much is one human life worth? That may seem a very strange (or cynical) question to ask, but it is a central question in almost all aspects of our lives. It is a central question in health care, social policy, questions of church and state, and military strategy, to name just a few. We even place an actual value on human life in insurance policies. In most cases (insurance policies aside), the question is never put in such a blunt, in-your-face, manner, but rather reworded to relate to the risk to human life. The use of cost-benefit analysis is commonplace in health-and-safety regulation. An integral part of any debate concerning the need for new regulation involves determining if the cost of its implementation is justified by the value of the human lives that will be prolonged (Revesz, 1999). While there are a number of different techniques for determining this human value, it is never associated directly and/or concretely with any living person, but rather represents the worth of what Lisa Heinzerling has defined as “the statistical person” (Heinzerling, 2010).

A statistical person is NOT a flesh and blood human being. He/she has no name, face or voice. This “person” is nothing more than a fabrication, a set of characteristics, that makes for a convenient stand-in for real life people for the purpose of making policy and operational decisions. Statistical people can’t die, because they have never lived. It is this very fact that makes their existence (on paper) important and useful in making difficult decisions that will have a real bearing on real life people. In making use of statistical people it is possible to run policy analyses while taking into consideration the pros and cons of death rates and suffering as an intellectual venture, avoiding sticky moral questions and messy emotions that would immediately come to the forefront if we were to deal with real life people.

As opposed to statistical people, we ARE real people and WE are the ones that pay the price of decisions made. When a government (or a governmental agency) decides not to fund certain medical procedures because the cost-benefit analysis showed that the cost outweighed the benefits, there are real people that will not be able to afford and will not receive treatment and perhaps die as a result. It is obvious that no government or organization has an infinite budget to meet all the needs of all those in need, and as such, it is necessary to make decisions as to where, when and how to make use of limited means. That does not in any way lessen the pain we feel for a loved one who is about to die as a result of those logical decisions and unforgiving facts of life! When reality hits close to home statistics become irrelevant.

On the other hand, when reality is far from home statistics become the perfect tool for dealing with unpleasant facts!

  • In July 2016, Baghdad was rocked by a massive explosion. Over the next few days the number of deaths rose from 15 to a final count of 382. It was a terrible tragedy by an account, but eclipsed by the fact that by the end of that year 6,878 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in violent deaths (Basu, 2017).
  • By the end of 2015 there were more than 2,000,000 displaced people in Nigeria as the result of the (still) running conflict between the Nigerian government and the Boko Haram terrorist group (Ogunlesi, 2015).
  • In Syria, the fight against ISIS and the civil war between the Syrian armed forces and various opposition forces have involved unlawful attacks against civilians and civilian structures including medical facilities, schools and mosques. The Violations Documentations Center (DVC), a local monitoring group reported the deaths of 446 civilians (including 91 children) in aerial attacks in Aleppo during one 10 day period in September 2017. Human Rights Watch recorded no less than 22 air attacks using incendiary weapons in 2017 (Human Rights Watch, 2018).
  • During demonstrations that occurred on the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel on May 15-16, 2018 the Israeli security forces, using live munitions, killed 60 people and wounded over 1,300. The Israeli government issued a statement claiming that 24 of those killed were Hamas operatives (Zikri et al, 2018) while Hamas itself claimed that the actual number of their operatives among the dead was 50 (Khuory & Kubovich, 2018). Official Israeli statements did not contain any detailed explanations as to the reasons for directly targeting the additional hundreds of people killed and wounded.
  • The average number of children dying each day around the world (the majority of them from disease and other natural causes) is 25,000 (Unicef, 2017)!

For most of the world these victims of human violence, disease and hunger are nameless, they are statistical people. We can (and do) compare the number of people killed in one year as opposed to the next and come to conclusions as to whether the situation is worsening or not. After the deaths on the border between Gaza and Israel (a conflict taking place approximately 8 miles from my home), the fact that Hamas reported that 50 out of 60 killed were from their ranks was used to justify the all of the 60 deaths and over 1,300 wounded (as a result of deliberate and, I assume, accurate sniper fire). In one of the arguments that I was involved in concerning the violence surrounding these protests, the numbers became percentages (“80% of them were members of a terrorist organization”), in an effort to emphasize the “quality” of the statistics. To those that I argued with, the fact that there were at least 10 others killed and many hundreds of wounded who were admittedly NOT members of a terrorist organization was irrelevant. Worst of all, the fact that ALL of those killed were real human beings, with families and loved ones and a life yet to live, was lost in the whitewash of statistics.

It is easiest, and best for our own mental health, to believe that any death that we are responsible for (even if by way of the government that represents us) is justifiable (vis-a-vis terrorists) or, at the very least, unavoidable. The distance put between us and the daily deaths of tens of thousands of children around the world, a distance made possible as a result of our NOT KNOWING their names and individual circumstances, affords us the ability to continue to function in day to day life without collapsing under mounds of grief. That being said, I would suggest that it is vital for our moral well-being that we remember that behind the façade of statistical people there are real living (and dying) human beings. While we cannot possibly know all of their names, they all (even the most evil of them) deserve to be recognized as having worth far beyond that of a number … especially when we (or those that represent us) make life-and-death decisions.


Barnell, O. (2018, April 27). ‘Victory for bees’: European Union approves ban on three pesticides that kill them. France24. Retrieved from: http://www.france24.com/en/20180427-europe-eu-ban-bee-killing-pesticides-neonicotinoids-environment-food-safety?ref=tw

Basu, M. (2017, January 12). In Iraq, thousands of terrorism’s victims go unnamed. CNN. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2017/01/12/world/iraq-terrorism-faceless-victims/index.html

Heinzerling, L. (2010). The Rights of Statistical People. Georgetown University Law Center. Retrieved from: http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/327

Human Rights Watch (2018). World Report 2018: Syria Events of 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/syria

Khuory, J. & Kubovich, Y. (2018, May 16). Hamas Leader: 50 of Those Killed in Conflicts on the Gaza Border Were Hamas Operatives (from Hebrew). Haaretz. Retrieved from: https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/1.6094699

Ogunlesi, T. (2015, December 2). Terror’s Nameless Victims in Nigeria. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/03/opinion/terrors-nameless-victims-in-nigeria.html

Revesz, R. (1999). Environmental Regulation, Cost-Benefit Analysis, and the Discounting of Human Lives. Columbia Law Review 99 (4). Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1123481

Unicef (2017). Fact of the Week: Average number of child deaths every day. Retrieved from: https://www.unicef.org/factoftheweek/index_53356.html

Zikri, A., Tibon, A., Khoury, J., Hasson, N., Landau, N. & Kubovich, Y. (2018, May 16). Palestinian President Recalls Washington Envoy as Israel Faces Diplomatic Crisis After Gaza Killings. Haaretz (English). Retrieved from: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/palestinian-president-recalls-washington-envoy-israel-faces-diplomatic-crisis-gaza-killings-turkey-erdogan-1.6091978


About the Author
Marc Marcus teaches at Sapir Academic College, Sederot, ISRAEL. He moved to Israel from Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1973 - the unexpected result of volunteering on a kibbutz for what was supposed to be a six month stay! Most of the last decade of his life has been dedicated to public administration (including achieving a B.A. in Public Administration & Policy at the ripe "young" age of 60 at Sapir Academic College). In addition to his joining the ranks of bloggers in The Times of Israel, Marc has his own blog site at: www.halftheglass.com
Related Topics
Related Posts