The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dying By The Numbers
A family tragedy highlights the violence in U.S. life


On Valentine's night, around 10 p.m. outside a hotel in Nevarre, Fla., my wife's sister was struck and killed by several cars. The first one didn't stop.

Her parents and two of her children, daughters--one of whom is pregnant--heard the impact. Her mother went outside the hotel where they'd gathered to see her daughter's flung shoes and purse. Those on the scene wouldn't let her closer. The deceased woman's youngest daughter witnessed a cover being placed over her mother's remains.

The street was not lit well and traversed by cars traveling at an excessive rate of speed. My wife's sister may have fallen or tripped; at any rate, the car that struck her first either could not or would not avoid her--those left behind heard the terrible squeal of brakes.

We are mourning here, and preparing to head to the deep South for attending the memorial service. This death is but one in a mounting statistical portrait of a nation that doesn't think much of life, despite protests outside abortion clinics or whipped up in frenzy over a brain-dead patient's breathing support apparatus getting disconnected. That's all political stuff designed to maintain control.

Meantime, the nation accepts with blithe indifference the annual grim accumulation of more than 40,000 automobile drivers and passengers who are killed, and pedestrians obliterated by motor vehicles and the more than million injured (see the Fatality Analysis Reporting System encyclopedia); that violent death--homicide and suicide-- claimed in 2003, at least, 49,639 people-- see

If any consumer good was found to kill 40,000 people a year there'd be Congressional hearings and recalls and the makers of the thing would go to jail. Yet our society accepts these deaths out of concern for convenience and ease. Consider how recent a technology the automobile is; a bit over a century, and prior to that, travel and hauling was conducted by muscle, that of people or draft animals.

This resigned regard, an acceptance of casual brutality, is absorbed into our culture. Media gives greater expression and acceptance. Violence and cruelty are part of our everyday language, fashion, entertainment. Oh, I am not naive--the Londoners who took two hours out of their workday to see Shakespeare's plays would, the next night, cheer and gamble on fighting dogs and bears.

And how odd it was to learn that in Virginia, suicide in recent years has surpassed homicide as a cause of violent death. See

Despair is our co-pilot.

We're Living Longer -- If We Live

Natural Life Expectancy in the United States, from the Sept. 13, 2007 posting on Political Calculations, analyzed a Reuters report about greater life expectancy in the United States. Buried in the data, though, is the somber fact that in the United States, we are quite adept at either killing ourselves or getting ourselves killed.

Ours is an angry and frustrated nation. You see this demonstrated in small and great, tragic ways, ranging from the cavalier attitude drivers possess when piloting a two ton, four wheel death machine with one hand on the traffic computer and the other on their cell phone, to some disturbed individual off his meds who stabs an old woman in the street, or goes off his rocker and shoots up a class room.

I think back upon a poster to the site, who in part remarked:

"If the mental health industry were honest, it would admit that the consequences of freedom are aimlessness and anomie, and that a consequence of the market economy is a lifetime of consumerism culminating in death without meaning. If this life is a hell for some, the world we have inherited is why...
Of course, if the mental health industry were honest, nobody would buy their happy drugs anymore; and everybodies [sic.] gotta make a living - right?"

Everything in the media that permeates our lives is war and death all the time, alleviated by bouts of sex, which is just a component part of a war against oversatisfied boredom. Our entertainment is violent. Behind the wheel, U.S. drivers go fast and furious in a war against time and distance and others whose lives they don't care about. The callousness of the collective culture--not each and every individual--is pervasive.

Choose Life, Except When Death Gets You On TV

We can choose not to indulge our Thanatosic tendencies. If our heads are clear enough. As a country, though, we've gotten so medicated and mediated, there's some who either can't make good decisions without a drug, or, are drugged in order to make better choices, except when they get off the drugs. But a long essay, reflecting on the recent Illinois college campus killings, is given at Sigmund, Carl and Alfred.

"Our intellect does not define our humanity. It never has and never will.

What makes us different and distinguishes us from the animal kingdom is the singular truth that we can consciously choose to control our self centered desires and urges. We can make moral decisions and choose ethical behavior notwithstanding those urges and desires- a very unanimal-like condition. The healthy human being is one who is aware of these attributes and chooses to live ethically and morally.

No matter how much the media and 'science' try to tell us otherwise, we are not simply 'more evolved animals.'

Man is responsible for his behavior, no matter how hard media and pop culture desperately want it to be otherwise. We are all accountable, 'root causes' notwithstanding and we all charged with elevating ourselves."

I Am Become Death, The Destroyer of Worlds

This embracing of death and horror is manifested in the war in Iraq (to less degree, the ongoing Afghanistan imbroglio), which was attacked for the stupid reason of giving legitimacy and two terms to the Bush presidency, and deflect our own culpability in creating an oil-addicted culture that is helping to destroy the planet.

The mass media both reflects and stimulates the violence with images that conflate death and sex and make the two one horrendous thing. The spate of "torture porn" films that relishes in young people getting maimed and murdered is one example; but I can't even watch Scream because Drew Barrymore's death in that film seems...not unbelievable to me, given what's happened in Virginia and around the country in the past few years.

Reuters noted, "The United States, a country of 300 million people, ranks 42nd in the world in life expectancy, according to previously released data."

" This low ranking in life expectancy is often pointed to as being the result of the deficiencies of the health care system in the U.S., " counters Political Calculations. "The problem with this thinking however is that it does not account for the fact that the U.S. has a disproportionate number of individuals who die as the result of fatal injuries compared to the other wealthy nations of the world."

Death and Destruction

A Center for Disease Control report noted:

"In 2001, a total of 157,078 persons died from unintentional injury or violence. Although unintentional injury was the leading cause of death for persons aged 1--34 years, unintentional injury, homicide, and suicide were among the 10 leading causes of death for persons aged 1--44 years (1).

In 2001, an estimated 29.7 million injured persons were treated in hospital emergency departments (EDs) in the United States. Although the majority of these persons were injured unintentionally, >2 million of them suffered violence-related injuries (1). Certain types of these injuries have short- and long-term health consequences and adversely affect the quality of life of those who survive severe and life-threatening injuries, especially those suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or spinal cord injury.

Each year, approximately 1.5 million U.S. residents sustain a TBI, of which approximately 50,000 die, accounting for one third of all injury-related deaths (2,3). In 2000, the annual direct medicals cost of injuries was estimated to be $117 billion, posing a substantial burden on society (4)."

Red Tooth and Claw

U.S. culture, like the rest of nature, is "red tooth and claw." But we also have more cars and guns and drugs--and prisons-- than almost anybody else. The CDC goes on to observe--and behind this turgid clinical prose you have to imagine the weeping and trauma of millions of people throughout the country:

"Fatal and nonfatal injuries are a major public health problem for all U.S. residents, because, in 2001, approximately 157,000 persons died as a result of injury and one in 10 persons was treated for an injury in a U.S. hospital ED. For every death, an estimated 10 persons were hospitalized/transferred for specialized medical care, and 178 persons were treated and released from a U.S. hospital ED (Figure 26)...

Violence-related deaths also ranked high among the leading causes of injury death. Females were much more likely than males to attempt suicide, with higher nonfatal self-harm injury rates; however, males were more likely to complete suicide, with higher fatal self-harm injury rates (27). For females, poisoning suicide, firearm-related suicide, and firearm-related homicide were among the 10 leading causes of injury death.

For males, firearm-related suicide, firearm-related homicide, and suffocation/inhalation suicide were among the 10 leading causes of injury death. Fatal and nonfatal firearm-related injury rates from interpersonal violence were highest for males aged 15--24 years; fatal firearm-related injury rates from self-harm were highest among males aged >65 years (9)."

The hydra-headed causes for this lack of regard for life and basic civility is beyond the scope of a blog. Richmond, in the late 19th and early 20th century, was still a violent place, and people in general weren't living far past their 60s due to diseases we can now hold at bay. Reading as I am in 1909-1911 I run across headlines of children run over by street cars, a woman crushed by an elevator, injuries sustained when hit by an "automobilist" and a variety of suicides, and the usual thrum of murder. I don't know the statistical comparisons to then and now.

I do know that it's all just....sad.

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