If Toronto were like Baghdad, thirty-nine residents would die violently every week
Since the American military invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died violent deaths. This tally comes from the Iraq Body Count project (iraqbodycount.org), which keeps track of each confirmed incident of violent death among the non-military population. Like all such numbers, this one is not really imaginable. It belongs to that class of quantities that news reporters like to convert into problems of spatial geometry, such as the number of football fields that would be needed to hold all the coffins.
A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine examined this number and extracted from it the sum of deaths that couldn’t be attributed to large-scale military action. Subtract the results of the great spasm of violence at the start of the invasion, and the two sieges of Fallujah, and you’re left with 60,481 civilian deaths in the six years after March 20, 2003. Few of these resulted from the spectacular suicide bombings we read about, the ones that claim dozens of lives at once. Most of these people perished in small batches, fewer than three at a time. In fact, many of the fatal assaults had only one victim.
I have no head for football fields, so I tried to imagine what this scale of violence would look like in my city. It’s hard to conceive of Toronto being attacked by a foreign power, though as I write this, divers are trying to find three ships in Lake Ontario that went down during the War of 1812. Nobody expects them to look like ships any more. Almost two centuries of sea change stand between us and our last experience of war on our own soil.
Over half of the Iraqi victims died in Baghdad, which in 2004 had a population of 6.5 million. If we apply the same proportion of fatality to Greater Toronto, which is home to about 2.5 million, more than 12,000 people would have suffered violent deaths in my city since March 2003. The toll would fluctuate from year to year, month to month, but for simplicity’s sake let’s imagine that the killings occurred at a steady pace through those six years. Let’s imagine thirty-nine violent deaths in Toronto every week.
Of those ordinary weekly deaths, thirteen are summary executions, by unknown people who abduct their victims, shoot them and leave their bodies in the street. Four of these victims are tortured before they die. Almost all of them are men like me. A few years ago, the New York Times published a front-page story about an Iraqi who died this way, a young man who owned a pet shop and loved birds. There was one photo of this Papageno smiling in his shop, and others of his body after he was found. His wrists were bound with wire. His face and arms had been worked on with an electric drill. He made the front of the Times not because his case was unusual, but because there were so many others like him. If Toronto were Baghdad, and this man and a dozen others died a similar death in an ordinary week, we might put their pictures in the paper, possibly on a page reserved for such pictures, but we probably wouldn’t retain them in our minds, except as a dull repetitive ache. We don’t have enough memory for them all.
In May 2003, two months after the American invasion began, Holly Jones, a ten-year-old girl in my part of town, was abducted, raped and killed. Her body was found in pieces in Lake Ontario. The investigation leading to the conviction of her killer was treated as urgent news for over a year. Graffiti artists covered a wall in a playground near my house with a mural about her; annual community events still celebrate her memory. Her name is never far from the minds of parents in my neighbourhood, who wonder whether they should still keep walking their ten-year-olds to school. We have plenty of memory for Holly, because she died a singular death. She was part of no pattern.
We would have an abundance of lethal patterns if Toronto were like Baghdad. Eight people would be dying every week during small-scale shooting incidents or firefights. Most of these happen without warning: the street is peaceful, and then it’s not, and people are running and bodies are falling. We had a scene like that in Toronto on Boxing Day, 2005, when a fifteen-year-old girl shopping on Yonge Street was struck outside the Foot Locker store by a bullet fired by young men exchanging shots in the street. Jane Creba’s killing, in the middle of the day, on the city’s traditional main drag, on the busiest shopping day of the year, ignited a public debate about what was seen to be a surge in gun violence. Fifty-two people died from gunshots in the city that year, a record number. Guns and what to do about them became an issue in the federal election. The prosecution of Creba’s suspected killers remains a subject of dread fascination. As a police sergeant said at the time of her death, “I think we’re going to feel this day for a long time to come.”
I try to imagine eight of those shootings every week, on Yonge Street, Queen Street, or my neighbourhood main drag, Roncesvalles Avenue. I walk down that road almost every day, and so do my children. By now, the odds are fairly good that at least a few of the people killed in this way during the past six years would be known to us. We might also know some of the killers (those who are not foreign soldiers), and may even have seen them in action, though not many of them will ever stand in a prisoner’s dock. Only one-quarter of civilian killings in Iraq are traced to a nameable perpetrator.
I still have eighteen weekly deaths to account for. A few people die during aerial or ground attacks, and twelve or thirteen more are killed in explosions of roadside bombs, mortar shells and suicide bombers. A disproportionate number of these victims are women and children. I have a hard time imagining this kind of death in my city. We have guns here, and shootings, but on the rare occasions when something blows up, it’s always a gas line or part of a factory. Bombs aren’t part of our particular culture of violence. For them to become so, and for us to develop a tradition of murder by explosive suicide, we would have to change enormously. We would have to become Baghdad.
At this point, I’m thrown back to my earlier state of incomprehension, to the blank number of fatalities and the football field. Who can understand any of this? Would I have any better grasp of it if I lived in Baghdad? The physical and mental effects of it would be forced upon me, but as for understanding it, I think I would merely throw myself against an unbreachable wall of absurdity and horror. But the effort of imagining my own city as Baghdad does give me new insight into a comment by U.S. General Tommy Franks, whose words serve as an ironic epigraph for the Iraq Body Count project. “We don’t do body counts,” said the general.