We need to focus on this week's deaths in Iraq - they belong to us

By Polly Toynbee (THE GUARDIAN, 20/04/07):

It's been a good week for death. In Iraq, 200 people were blown to bits in what witnesses called "a swimming pool of blood" with "pieces of flesh all over the place". Remember that the dead are only part of the story: add to each of the war's hundreds of thousands of civilian corpses all those burned and crippled survivors, far beyond Iraqi medical facilities' ability to cope, breadwinners and babies lost. Few families are untouched by the sheer scale of slaughter.

But it is hard for news media to find new ways to refresh repeat tales of daily carnage. The pictures and the thoughts tell the same dismal story day after day, raising the same terrible questions: what have we done, what have we unleashed, how can it end? This is our war, our fault, our bloodshed for aiding America's reckless and incompetent invasion and for failing to stop civil war. But because news needs to be new, Iraqi deaths struggle to stay on front pages.

Nor does the war find a place in the nation's top concerns: people worry about terror attacks more than the war, this despite the distrust it has engendered that is now driving our three-times prime minister from power. Perhaps the public compassion fatigue is because these deaths are caused mainly by extremist Iraqi sects killing other Iraqis, and many fewer are at the hands of our soldiers. For whatever reason, neither the horror nor the national shame quite comes home to roost. Yet on Wednesday morning more ordinary Iraqis died than all the British troops killed so far.

There is a growing disproportion and incoherence in public attitudes to death, with a curious blend of indifference about deaths that should concern us, prurience about deaths that don't, and a squeamishness and fear verging on denial about mundane dying.

It was a good week for death too on the Virginia Tech campus. Although it was hardly less unpredictable "news" than bombs in Baghdad, there was more press relish for this story. (College kids like ours?) On day one and day two, the BBC's 10 O'Clock News, like the press, gave it vacuous acres of coverage from a flotilla of senior correspondents. But these 32 dead students follow in a cortege of identical tragedies: as soon as we knew this was just another deranged loner, what more was there to think? It happened in Dunblane, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Tasmania and elsewhere, routine school misfit revenges.

The collective insanity of Americans about guns is an oft-reprised wonderment to Europeans. But there is nothing new about the National Rifle Association: even Al Gore in his Inconvenient Truth had to prove he was a regular guy by talking affectionately about his guns. Lionel Shriver made the best point: why encourage copycats by giving these narcissistic fantasists the publicity they kill for? This boy's glory video means his name liveth for evermore - and a good deal longer than the roll call of fallen US soldiers.

Attitudes to death and mourning grow odder the rarer dying young becomes. There is less sense of proportion about the risks of dying, or about the inevitability of death itself, even when people die in old age. The temptation is to regard every death as avoidable, deny any accident is ever accidental, always find someone to blame, and hunt down that doctor in charge. (A third of all NHS maternity cost now is for insurance.) At the same time, the public dare not face up to the reality of the prolonged agony modern medicine imposes on the dying. Until it happens to them or their parents, people fondly imagine morphine or palliative care will always ease the end. That fallacy means many will enter the grave via the torture chamber, for failure to demand the legal right to die at a time of our own choosing.

People no longer know how to approach death and its rituals. Abandoning religion doesn't necessarily mean resorting to reason. With no hereafter, body parts are gaining morbid significance in a strange new fetishism. The story of secret biopsies taken from dead Sellafield workers in the 70s and 80s is interesting and potentially sinister for those who live and work there, since the reports were never published. But defying all sense, the focus of the story for relatives and the media has been on the "shocking" discovery that removal of mostly small slices and some whole organs from corpses means that loved ones buried less than whole bodies. Alistair Darling had to announce an inquiry about missing organs 30 years ago, rather than the alarming "strong circumstantial evidence that plutonium ... found its way into the tissues of the local populace".

This sits oddly with the recent appetite for TV forensics dramas featuring pathologists weighing brains in scales and disgorging stomach contents in close-up. Or Six Feet Under's embalming with guts routinely extracted. All this started with the Alder Hey hospital children. It was easy to see how parents' unbearable despair at losing a child could be displaced into rage over the loss of an organ. But that seems to have set a new national attitude towards the sanctity of innards: it should only be a fetish for odd religious sects where lacking complete organs jeopardises entry to heaven. What of the growing number of people who have their loved one's ashes compressed into diamonds to wear for ever?

Fading cellophane bunches of flowers tied to lamp posts are a drive-slower salutary reminder that the roads kill over 3,000 people a year. The clear and present danger of the car should raise as much or more public fear than panic over very rare UK deaths by terrorism. The anxious taste for daily health scares when we have never been healthier or safer is another necro-neurosis. (HRT kills this week, though last week it was reported to save lives.)

Those harmless temporary floral and teddy bear memento moris draw snobbish criticism. Useful park benches with small plaques of remembrance are good memorials to benefit the living. But another breed of permanent memorial is now sprouting up everywhere, not just some 2,000 permanent plaques by roadsides, but slabs and artefacts scarring the slopes of Ben Nevis and other places the deceased ones loved, imposing private griefs on public places. It will not be clear to many in a few years why 28 British holidaymakers blown up in Bali have a large memorial outside the Foreign Office in a national beauty spot facing St James's Park, constructed of 20ft of Portland stone and a 5ft granite globe. Each was a tragic death, but war memorials remember public servants who died for communal national endeavours: this seems oddly disproportionate.

So does pomp and circumstance with a bishop and City of London potentates this week interring the unknown bones of an ancient Roman teenage girl, with memorial slab. If every accidental death has a "never forget me" memorial in a public place, the country will soon be a necropolis.

The real objection is not aesthetic, or distaste for emotional ostentation. It is about a sense of proportion over fear and death. An age of over-individualism is demanding individual recognition for every painful death, me-me mourning regardless of its collective significance. Near-pornographic fascination with the gory details of a meaningless madman's murders in Virginia was just grisly. This week's deaths in Iraq are the ones we should all be contemplating with due solemnity, because they belong to us.