In which I don’t care about genocides that kill only .01 percent of the population

My WSJ review on Tracy Kidder’s book on the Burundian genocide survivor generated this comment from a reader (abbreviated here, the full version is posted as a comment on the blog): Mr. Easterly,

You point out that "only" 0.01% of Africans have been killed by war and genocide... each year... for the past four decades. This is only slightly higher than the percentage of Europeans who died in the Holocaust each year between 1940 and 1945, meaning that Africa has merely suffered something like a 40-year Holocaust.

In fact, 0.01% is significantly lower than the percentage of Americans killed each year in the second world war (0.08% or so, on average), a minor conflict barely mentioned in writings of the time. During the Vietnam conflict we were losing only about 0.002% of our population each year for about 16 years and people would barely shut up about it.

Thus I propose that we adopt 0.01% of the population as the Easterly Threshold, requiring that any discussion of a conflict failing to achieve this level of decimation include a disclaimer that most of the population has not, in fact, yet died. Where populations are suitably difficult for us Americans to distinguish from one another, this percentage will be calculated on an arbitrarily continental or sub-continental basis. This immediately puts the whole history of the 20th century in a much rosier light: using the Easterly Threshold, a group like the Khmer Rouge barely clears the hurdle, massacring just 0.012% of Asia's population in a year.


Jonathan Custer

Lakeland, Florida (soon Birmingham, England)

Dear Mr. Custer,

Congrats on your tour de force demolishing my argument that nobody should care about genocides that kill only 0.01 percent of the population or less.

You force me to admit that if a genocidal soldier killed one of my own loved ones, I myself would get only moderate comfort from the statistic that this corresponded to an American death rate of only 0.000000333 % (1 out of 300 million).

Your argument is so skillful, let’s not get pedantic that my article never made the “only” argument; it actually said that the .01 percent statistic is also “of no comfort to Africans today who are victims of still much too frequent horrors; bless anyone who can stop the horrors or help the victims.”

I was foolishly hoping the .01 percent number might induce the casual reader to re-examine his belief that the typical African family consists of a wife-beating alcoholic male and starving refugee females raped by child soldiers, soon after massacred by the janjaweed just before they would have died of AIDS anyway.

hortonwillie.gifOn correcting stereotypes, consider the Willie Horton ad of the presidential election of 1988 of the George Bush, Sr. vs. Michael Dukakis. A political group allied with Bush ran an ad featuring a scary picture of Willie Horton (see also the video), a black man in prison for murder whom Dukakis granted a weekend furlough. He then raped a woman while on furlough. The ad is partially credited with winning the election for Bush.

I would argue that white voters over-reacted in their fears of black crime. The propensity of black males to commit crimes is lower than the general public thinks, and other whites, not blacks, commit most crimes against whites. According to your interpretation, my attempt to correct a stereotype means I don’t care about the victims of Willie Horton. So this is a good opportunity to clarify I am not, in fact, in favor of rape and murder. I'm not that keen on genocide either.

Actually, I can do two things at once: (1) argue against exaggerated stereotypes and (2) care about the victims of crimes regardless of whether they fit stereotypical patterns. But thanks for your argument forcing me to clarify this.

Satirically Yours,

Bill Easterly