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No Death Is Meaningless

We have trouble understanding and accepting mass deaths. The toll at Virginia Tech is too high to comprehend. The word "massacre," and there is no other word for it, chills us all. The same with the toll in Iraq or Columbine or Oklahoma City. But we do accept deaths when they occur by themselves. I read today that 30,000 people die in gun violence every year, and yet, we don't talk about it much.

When I was first starting out in television, I worked on the news desk. One of my jobs was to call the local police departments every hour or so to see if anything was happening. There was a term the police used that I am ashamed to admit I adopted as well: "misdemeanor homicide." If I heard the code for a homicide on the police scanner, I'd call and they'd say, "Don't worry about it — misdemeanor homicide." That meant the victim was maybe a drug dealer or user, or just someone nobody much cared about. That the victim was a minority was almost a certainty. In other words, a "meaningless death."

One of the duties of my next job at CBS News in New York was to check the wires for the overnight death toll. Crime was rampant in New York in those days, and there were two or three or six murders a night. At least it seemed like that. And no one cared. Unless, of course, they all happened together. Then it might be a story.

Why is it that single deaths don't move us? Why do we accept this level of violence as long as it happens in ones and twos? These deaths are no less tragic. The grief felt by the victim's loved ones is no less.

The toll from gun violence is horrendous. The toll on our highways is even higher. And the toll from cancer and other diseases, higher still. The fact that cancer deaths occur one by one is obvious, but the total is staggering. We have to do more. As I sit here so many years later, I am still ashamed that I used that term. And I am ashamed that it took me a while to learn that no death is meaningless. Ever.