Pay attention to the news; give a thought to those abroad

I tend to think many Americans are obsessed with reality TV and celebrity gossip because it is something they can at least understand and manage in their minds.

For many, the daily news of politics, business, economics and government is overwhelming and incomprehensible. Trillion-dollar budgets, the consumer price index, appointments to the appellate bench – sometimes people just want to hear about Britney Spears’ latest shotgun wedding or watch the “Survivors” eat half-cooked rice while they wolf down their Big Macs.

This is never more apparent than with college students come early May. As school winds to a close, temperatures rise and finals disappear one by one, the thoughts drift away from the news of the day and become focused instead on travel, vacations and, most importantly, sleep. I am not one to criticize all this. Like most of you, I cherish the bubble of academia and relish in ignoring the real world every once and a while.

But this May, it is imperative that we remain conscious of what is going on overseas. There are stories breaking every day that matter more than ever, and there is one number in the news that we must work hard to understand and appreciate.

As I write this, on Monday at 12:14 p.m., that number is 723. By the time this reaches your hands today, the number could be well more than 750, given recent trends. It is the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq.

Reviewing the list right now, the most recent additions are Christopher Dickerson of Eastman, Ga., and Jason Dwelley of Apopka, Fla. The most recent Minnesota name on the list is Levi Angell of Cloquet. He was 20 years old in the first week of April, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee.

I’m sure many of you are still deluded into thinking that we are squashing the opposition; that this is a re-enactment of the first gulf war, where only a few dozen Americans lost their lives. The reality could not be further from the truth.

Consider the trend of fatalities over the last six months. From November through April, the numbers of fatalities by month have been 82, 40, 47, 20, 52 and 140.

Yes, you read correctly, 140 Americans died last month in Iraq.

While some media outlets have started to make noise over this number, and while headlines about the rising number of dead are starting to pop up more frequently on news broadcasts, I continue to feel that the average American, who could recite the name and history of every “American Idol” contestant, could not guess the number of dead U.S. soldiers within 100. They have no clue as to what is going on, and no concept as to the devastation this “war on terror” is wreaking on families across this country.

On the radio Monday morning, I heard a soldier being interviewed on the phone, talking about his imminent departure for a 30-month tour of duty. Let me tell you, in the days of Desert Storm and even after, I would never have given this interview a second thought. Military service seemed dangerous to me, but not all that risky. Yet, I found myself considering what odds this man had of becoming just another statistic.

I am not trying to be morose, only to expose you to the grim truth: Lots of Americans are dying. Now, as a columnist, I have many opinions as to the poor planning of the Bush administration, its slow response to an unraveling crisis and its failure at nearly every turn to confront this situation head-on. In fact, I have wondered recently why President George W. Bush continues to make so many fund-raising appearances even as the newspapers on Air Force One must report the deaths of dozens of U.S. soldiers.

But this is about more than some trivial political argument. I am not here to bash Bush. I am here to ask all of you to pay attention when you hit the road next week. Pick up a USA Today or New York Times at the gas station. Read the names, and think of their families. Attach a face and a person to their death, just as you have become so attached to the contestants on “Survivor All-Stars” and “Average Joe.”

I’m not asking you to judge the situation one way or another, but simply imploring you to at least give it a moment’s thought every now and then. I’m sure everyone’s reaction will be different, but this is quickly becoming a chapter in our history too important to not have a thought about.

I’ll enjoy my summer, I can tell you that. But I’ll also think occasionally of Angell, and the muggy Midwest summers he’ll never have a chance to enjoy again.

“The most violent element in society is ignorance.”
– Emma Goldman

Steven Snyder welcomes comments at [email protected]