A Question of Targeted Tragedy

All else held constant, if a number of people are killed, the fact of their deaths will illicit a more sympathetic/emotional response if those people belonged to any one ethnic or religious group. It seems to me that if six million Jews or Kurds or Catholics were slaughtered, this would be just as bad as any given group of six million people being slaughtered. I have three ideas as to why the targeted deaths of a particular group of people might yield this heightened response:

1. It’s easier to identify with a group of people if they have something in common. Suffering in large numbers is hard to internalize; as Stalin darkly said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” The idea of “people” per se doesn’t necessarily imply community. If these people all shared a common thread of identification, it could quite possibly hit home that much harder.


The Holocaust, Spanish Inquisition, and Western conquest of Native Americans all yield more popular reference and greater emotional response than Stalin’s 40 million dead or even the 20-43 million Chinese starved during the Great Leap Forward.

2. The more you know about someone, the more you empathize. This is closely related to no. 1, but different in some important aspects. While no. 1 deals with group identification, this has more to do with people as individuals- or in this case, the individualization of groups. If you hear about the death of a friend’s relative whom you know nothing about, it’s tragic in that your friend has suffered a loss and someone died. If you hear about your friend’s Aunt May who was a practicing Christian who went to church every Sunday, cared for her tulip garden and baked cookies whenever the grandkids came over, her death becomes a far more personal tragedy to you by some degree. With every additional piece of information gathered about an individual or group, one is able to paint a clearer picture of the departed, thus bringing their abstract loss closer.

3. This hypothesis stands independent of nos. 1 & 2. Historically, great travesties are carried out against or in the name of (or in conjunction) an ethnic or religious group. An observer of history might anticipate this when learning of an additional travesty. Some of the first instances of historical oppression we learn of in American school are the Nazi massacre of Jews, the Spanish Inquisition that forced Jewish and Muslim conversion to christian orthodoxy, and the Western conquest and slaughter of an estimated 10 million Native Americans. This pattern of group massacre might have established itself as a sort of “properly historical” mechanism in the minds of historical observers: “History has shown us that the massacre of ethnic and religious groups are the most brutal, consequential kinds of mass murder, therefore any true massacre is a massacre of an ethnic or religious group.”

All of these possibilities seem viable to me, but none alone feel satisfactory. I welcome criticism, confirmation and disconfirmation, as well as additional hypotheses.

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