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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A Sign Of The Times

I can still remember when I was a kid, that the sign beneath McDonalds' golden arches said something other than "BILLIONS AND BILLIONS SERVED".

That's right, when I was a boy (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), the number of hamburgers served up there on the sign was listed in the millions, not billions... and they actually had removable numbers on the sign like the ones gas stations use to show the changing prices, to announce just how many millions of their hamburgers they had sold to date.

In fact, while driving across the US with my family during the summer of 1973, I clearly remember wondering to myself if I'd get to see the numbers changing on one of the McDonalds' signs as ever more hamburgers were served... like a car's odometer rolling up the miles (it never happened).

Granted, it made little difference to me (or anyone else, I assume) whether it was 255 million or 943 million hamburgers served.  It was simply a neat marketing ploy, because it let the public know that someone was tracking how many of their hamburgers had been consumed by the eating public.  

But at a certain point, someone in McDonalds' corporate marketing department decided that this ploy had run its course, and to simplify things, they started making signs for all their restaurants saying simply, "BILLIONS AND BILLIONS SERVED".

I mention this tidbit of Americana because of a little news snipet I saw this morning that casually mentioned that "The UN's human rights office... has stopped updating the death toll from Syria's civil war since its last count of at least 100,000 in late July".

The reason given for this decision to freeze the death toll at the nice round 100,000 mark was "the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights'... own lack of access on the ground in Syria and its inability to verify "source material" from others".

Now, I think we can all agree that nobody realistically expects the UN to report exact numbers of casualties in the ongoing Syrian civil war (or any conflict, for that matter).  That would require not only a level of omniscience virtually impossible in any war zone; much less a third world war zone, but would also require a real time reporting mechanism (like an odometer readout) capable of providing an up-to-the-minute count as each new death occurred.  

As difficult as it is to fathom such staggering numbers of casualties, I think you'll agree that any thinking person can appreciate the difference between 50,000 and 75,000 dead.  And as round numbers go, 100,000 dead Syrians is certainly markedly different than, say, 150,000!

I'm sure some of you have already decided that I am either callous or cruel to have drawn a mental parallel between a fast food chain's hamburger count and the body count in an ongoing armed conflict.  What can I say... my mind goes to strange places at 5:00 AM.

I think the obvious parallel that caught my attention is that, just as McDonalds' management came to realize that nobody really cared enough about exactly how many hamburgers had been served to even feign an accurate tally... so too, the UN seems to have reached a similar conclusion about the body count in Syria.  At a certain point the numbers all become meaningless expressions of 'too many to count', so why bother, right?

I don't want to give the mistaken impression that I hold the UN to a higher standard of conduct or accuracy than the management of McDonalds.  Because I don't.  

But I find the UN's excuse of their "inability to verify "source material" from others" to ring a tad hollow, to say the least, given that they have been more than content to take a third party's word for the number of Palestinian refugees there are at any given moment.  In fact the UN quite literally set up a unique agency to do nothing but believe in the miraculously growing number of Palestinian refugees, and tend to their every need.

What do I mean by 'unique'?

Since WWII, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees has been responsible for all refugees in the world... except the Palestinians.  With that one glaring exception, all refugees in the world are quickly counted up as soon as whatever upheaval created them subsides, given immediate aid, and promptly resettled.  As much as I love to criticize the UN, this UN agency actually works fairly efficiently.

As a result, reasonably accurate statistics exist for the numbers and dispensation of refugees all over the world over the past seventy years.  Except, that is, for the Palestinian refugees.

Unlike all other refugees who are defined as 'a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster', the definition of a Palestinian refugee has been expanded to also include all of the descendants of those original refugees displaced in 1948.  That means, instead of a few tens of thousands of displaced persons, there are today somewhere north of five million Palestinian refugees!  

To deal with this exponentially expanding pool of Palestinian refugees, the UN created a unique organization called the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) whose raison d'être, not to mention enormous staffing requirement and budget, would instantly evaporate if anyone were to miraculously find a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue (or define them as all other refugees in the world are defined).

And unlike the excuse being used for abandoning any semblance of accuracy in reporting the body count in Syria, the UN is perfectly content to rely on the Palestinians themselves to provide the current refugee figures.  This incredible situation is allowed to exist because UNRWA's funding is based on the number of refugees under their care, which provides a hefty incentive to accept the inflated figures provided by their charges (not to mention a teeny tiny conflict of interest).

Bottom line, when deciding how /if to create any kind of accounting of hamburgers, bodies or refugees... it all comes down to who considers the numbers important.

Just as McDonalds long ago decided that the public didn't really care to see a real number up there on their signs, the UN has apparently decided that the public no longer cares, in anything more than the most abstract terms, how many Syrians have been killed since the start of their bloody civil war.

But it is a telling sign of the times that despite the UN's "inability to verify "source material" from others"... when it comes to the Palestinian refugees, they are still able and willing to provide up-to-the-minute Palestinian refugee numbers in order to calculate UNRWA's burgeoning budget... as well as Israel's ever expanding culpability.

Posted by David Bogner on January 7, 2014 | Permalink


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A couple of comments:

1) UNWRA actually predates the UNHCR. Apparently a number of such bodies were formed post WWII, each to handle a specific refugee groups, but other tha UNWRA all of them have long completed their missions and been disbanded and folded into the UNHCR.

2) There's another way in which Palestinian refugees differ from others - normally, if a refugee obtains citizenship in a third country he is no longer considered a refugee. This is apaprently not the case for Palestinian refugees.

Posted by: Eyal | Jan 8, 2014 6:56:31 PM

Trep, you and I must have been from the same era. In the 1960's I remember that the signs mentioned "millions" with a light display for 400, 500, etc. to 900. Then the light display was covered with a large "ONE" and the word "millions" changed to "billions." Then "one" changed to "two," "three," etc. I think I remember that they eventually had a "permanent" number (e.g., 40 billion served). I suppose that no one knows exactly how many billion they have actually served, therefore the "billions and billions served."

Posted by: sheldan | Jan 9, 2014 4:10:29 AM

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