We should remember the lessons of the Life Magazine cover story from 51 years ago.
On June 27, 1969, during the peak of the Vietnam War, Life Magazine published a cover story that was immediately controversial. The cover featured a close-up photo of a young American soldier, with the words blazing “The Faces of the Americans Dead in Vietnam — One Week’s Toll.” Inside appeared the names and faces of the 242 Americans who had lost their lives in Vietnam in the past week.
“We must pause to look into the faces,” the magazine told us, since this “translates to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country.”
The story struck a nerve throughout America. In a country that was already torn apart over the war, seeing the fresh faces of those soldiers — young men, many with wide smiles — was a powerful reminder of the true human cost of the war. In a unique and profound way, seeing those images stirred the anger and the passion of both the pro-war and anti-war movements. A picture was, indeed, worth a thousand words.
We are now in the depths of an insidious virus that kills indiscriminately. In a mere two months, the death count skyrocketed from zero to more than 40,000. Each day we see charts and updates with the latest statistics, and it’s easy to get desensitized to these numbers. It’s easy to forget that while “flattening a curve” is good news, it’s just a sterile mathematical way of saying that thousands of lives have been prematurely cut short and there’ll be thousands more in the future, leaving love ones devastated.
Making matters worse, we hear certain media personalities make shocking and recklessly insensitive comments about the loss of life. Rush Limbaugh said that “no matter how many people die from coronavirus, it’s not going to equate to the damage done to the U.S. economy.” Dr. Oz described the re-opening of schools as a “very appetizing opportunity” and noted that he read a “nice piece” that said that opening of schools “may only cost us 2-3% in terms of total mortality.” Bill O’Reilly said that “many people who are dying, both here and around the world, were on their last legs anyway.”
Each comment has the intent — and often the effect — of depersonalizing a human life. Dr. Oz’s comments that a loss of life would “only” be a certain percentage is, unfortunately, often repeated. Whenever there’s a slight reduction in the daily death count, we inevitably hear journalists or politicians report that the death count is “only” the new number (“Only 700 deaths today”).
But referring to the dead as an “only” is a disservice to their memory and the height of callousness. No one would ever refer to the death of their loved one as an “only.” The use of such terminology does incalculable damage. It allows the fallen to become inanimate, faceless and nameless. It allows some people to lose their compassion at a time when it’s needed most. And it enables leaders to make seriously flawed policy decisions.
CNN recently took a page from Life Magazine’s “One Week’s Toll” story and created an online memorial for people who have died from COVID-19. This digital version allows families to submit a photo and a brief description of their deceased loved one. Just as with Life Magazine 51 years ago, we see vibrant faces of real human beings, beaming with life and hope. We see their smiles and their grit, just like seeing our own family photos. Life Magazine’s admonishment to America in 1969 is just as relevant today: Look carefully at those faces because besides knowing “how many” there were, we also mustn’t forget “who” they were.
Several months into this coronavirus crisis we find ourselves at a critical crossroad. The debate between the medical realities and the economic considerations has already heated up to a boiling point. More and more we see a demand to “re-open” the economy. As that happens, expect to hear louder and more callous words from some that minimize and depersonalize the dead.
When we hear such things, we should remember the lessons of that Life Magazine edition 51 years ago. We should visit the current CNN site and see the faces of the coronavirus dead. We should stare at those faces for a bit, read who they were, where they were from. For a moment, we should feel the sadness of their loss to their families and to us, maybe cry a little.
If we ever get to the point of disregarding those faces and forgetting that they were once as human as we and our loved ones, we will have allowed this virus to take more from us than our fellow citizens. We will have allowed to it rob us of a piece of our human souls.
Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan chair for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.