Discourse Does Not Match Falling Sept. 11 Death Toll
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 22, 2001; Page A18
Nearly 2,000 names have been removed from the lists of those dead and missing in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- but it would be hard to tell that from the public discourse in America over the past two months.
Initial estimates of 6,030 casualties in New York, Washington and western Pennsylvania had dropped to 4,132 by yesterday and will probably fall further as officials sort through the confusion and remove double-counted names and other errors. Politicians, pundits and the general public, however, have often used numbers larger than the steadily declining count.
The discrepancy reflects both the resilience of statistics and a curious psychological irony: Although people are glad that there were fewer victims, powerful political, social and emotional forces conspire to make reducing the number of casualties difficult.
For once a number becomes a symbol for tragedy, reducing it runs the risk of seeming callous and implying the tragedy was not as bad as previously thought, say statisticians and sociologists who study how numbers are used.
"Once a number gets into circulation, it takes on a life of its own," said Joel Best, author of "Damned Lies and Statistics." "People become invested in it, they feel they need to defend it, criticism of the number becomes a criticism of larger principles."
The toll of missing and dead has fluctuated because of confusion over casualties in New York. The plane crashes in Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon were known early on to have caused 44 and 189 casualties, and those figures have not changed. But an accurate count has been far more difficult at the World Trade Center.
Officials in Manhattan were inundated with missing-person reports -- often of the same person and sometimes with different spellings. Dewi Williams, a spokesman for the British consulate, said yesterday that about 26,000 phone calls to British officials triggered initial estimates of 200 to 300 dead and missing Britons. The current number is 63.
On Monday, when official reports were putting the number of victims at 4,184, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said, "It is now 69 days since September 11th, when coldblooded terrorists turned civilian airliners into flying bombs and used them to kill 5,000 innocent people."
On Oct. 29, when the official count was 4,834, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the terrorists had killed "5,000 people . . . plus."
On Oct. 11, after officials put the toll under 5,500, Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said, "One month ago today, more than 6,000 innocent men and women had their lives stolen."
"Attacking [the higher numbers] is difficult because however you write it, you have to use the word 'only,' " said Philip Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who has studied the use and misuse of statistics. "In the case of the World Trade Center, [if] you say the figure is 'only 4,000,' that [sounds] callous."
Because of this, he said, statistics about great tragedies can become "morally impregnable."
Statistics also are hard to change when they have been used to make and defend policy. At a news conference on Oct. 29, a reporter asked for the "tactical rationale" for using cluster bombs, which human rights groups say can indiscriminately kill large numbers of civilians.
"Yes, this is very simple," replied Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "On September 11th, we lost over 5,000 people to an intentional act. We are now prosecuting a global war on terrorism."
In cautioning correspondents not to turn reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan into propaganda for the Taliban, CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson said: "We must talk about how the Taliban . . . have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people."
Jo-Anne Prokopowicz, a State Department spokeswoman, said Powell's speech on Monday had tried to take into account the latest numbers. "Most people," she said, "have 5,000 in their mind." She dismissed the possibility that the altered numbers should have any impact on policy.
Not everyone agreed: Ellin Bloch, a psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of the book "Crisis Intervention and Trauma Response," said the multiple measures taken after the Sept. 11 disaster -- the war in Afghanistan, the detention of hundreds of suspects, the new powers of U.S. law enforcement to suspend civil liberties -- all derived their authority from the attack's magnitude.
"To exaggerate here," she said, "if the numbers killed were pushed downward to 100, my sense is that everyone would be totally bewildered at what's going on and what we're doing -- the war, the restraint on civil liberties.
"So there is some [psychological] investment in keeping the initial count high," she said. "It isn't for malicious reasons. Now that we have set a process in motion, it would be difficult to lower those numbers even further."
Researcher Lynn Davis contributed to this report.