What did you feel (if anything at all) when you heard last week (if you heard at all) that 126 people died in a soccer stadium in Ghana, only three days after two people died in a soccer stadium in Iran and a man died in a soccer stadium in Ivory Coast, only seven days after seven people died in a soccer stadium in Congo, a scant 18 days after 43 people died in a soccer stadium in South Africa? I felt nothing, beyond a split second's pang of regret. "A single death is a tragedy," said Joseph Stalin, "a million deaths is a statistic."
By the abysmal standards of international soccer spectating, 179 deaths in 29 days is unremarkable. Stalin, after all, couldn't have become history's most prolific mass murderer without the passive complicity of his fellow beings, who often see ZIP-code-sized death tolls—the result of Mexican earthquakes, say, or Indian rail disasters—as abstractions.
Which is what soccer stadium catastrophes have become—a Stalinesque statistical litany with little resonance: 25 killed in Scotland (April 5, 1902), 33 in England (March 6, 1946), six in Chile (March 30, 1955), 318 in Peru (May 24, 1964), 74 in Argentina (June 23, 1968), 66 in Scotland (Jan. 2, 1971), 49 in Egypt (Feb. 17, 1974), 56 in England (May 11, 1985), 39 in Belgium (May 29, 1985), 93 in Nepal (March 12, 1988), 96 in England (April 15, 1989), 40 in South Africa (Jan. 13, 1991), 17 in Corsica (May 5, 1992), nine in Zambia (June 16, 1996), 84 in Guatemala (Oct. 16, 1996), five in Nigeria (April 6, 1997), 13 in Zimbabwe (July 9, 2000). You are, at this moment, suppressing a yawn.
It is nearly impossible to interest a great many Americans in events overseas, except in the most accessible of ways, so I was resigned this week to writing another breezy, no-brain-required installment of Carnac the Magnificent...
Q: What kind of cars did Wang Zhizhi buy after signing with the Dallas Mavericks?
...when I was reminded that being human requires (or ought to require) sympathy for one's cohabitants on earth, and that something larger is lost when so many lives pass unacknowledged. "The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them," wrote George Bernard Shaw. "That's the essence of inhumanity."
A man whose letter was recently published in this magazine called the 30,000 annual gun deaths in America "statistically insignificant," and it's unlikely that he'd consider his own willful indifference to be part of the problem. A wise man said, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."
When Dale Earnhardt became the fourth driver in a year to be killed on a NASCAR track, it was said that no other sport would tolerate so much carnage among its participants. Surely no sport—other than soccer—would tolerate so many fatalities among its spectators. The vast majority of soccer disasters are the result of decrepit stadiums and/or horrendous crowd control, not, as is widely assumed in the U.S., hooligan violence. These are unnatural disasters, not acts of God: They are eminently preventable.
England dithered on the issue for decades. But after 96 fans were crushed to death in an overcrowded standing-room terrace at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989, the government gave every major professional team in Great Britain a choice: Make your stadium a safe "all-seat" venue or fold your franchise. So the stadiums were improved.