Joseph Stalin probably never said "the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic".
But the widespread assumption that he did is understandable: if anyone understood the numbing effect of mega-death, it was Stalin. While there's debate among historians over how many deaths can or should be attributed to Stalinism, the contending schools of thought seem to have compromised on 20 million.
The reaction to the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, carried out and recorded for posterity and propaganda purposes by Islamic State fighters, shows that, despite its ring of chilly cynicism, there's some truth in this aphorism.
The beheadings are routinely described as horrific, sickening and barbaric, the implication being that if they don't represent a new low in the long, dismal history of man's inhumanity to man, they at least hark back to a dark age when life was nasty, brutish and short and people didn't know any better.
While the Obama Administration has previously focused on disentangling America from old wars and avoiding entanglement in new ones, there now seems to be a push for a war to make the world safe for foreign correspondents. Vice-President Joe Biden warned the killers that "they should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they'll reside."
The Independent's Robert Fisk, admittedly a reporter whose millions of words on Middle Eastern affairs include precious few in praise of America, wondered what made a beheading video so different from the grainy footage of persons unknown to us being blown to smithereens in a drone strike.
The answer, I suppose, is that we assume those obliterated compounds and SUVs contained bad guys, although we have to take the Pentagon's word for it and there are documented instances of high value targets turning out to be family gatherings.
And what of the pyrotechnics that liven up the news hour whenever America or Israel unleash their arrays of high tech, remote controlled weaponry? When the sound and light show concludes and the smoke and dust clear, what's usually revealed is block after block of rubble from which the dead and very lucky, usually civilians, often children, have to be dragged. Even then, the death and injury tolls don't convey the displacement and destruction of civil infrastructure, technical terms for widespread human misery.
As the aphorism implies, it's only human to respond emotionally to individual suffering and dispassionately to mass suffering. We can empathise with the former, the victim and their grieving family, whereas the latter induces a sense of powerlessness, particularly when it's contained in a far-off place of which we know little.
We look at the photos of Foley and Sotloff kneeling before their executioner, imagining their terror and wondering if they realised this was the end or clung to the hope that it was a trial run or another spirit-breaking humiliation. Mercifully, whoever was in those obliterated compounds had little or no inkling of what was about to happen.
By knowing their names and seeing their faces, we are drawn into their fates. In contrast, while we watch footage of air strikes knowing there will be terrible consequences for many people, some of them entirely innocent, the absence of individual narratives has a distancing, dehumanising effect.
Prince Harry was criticised for remarking that going after the Taliban in an attack helicopter was rather like playing a video game. But, however unwittingly, he was making the point that when you engage the enemy at long range, you are detached from the deadly consequences of your actions.
These beheadings are examples of what could be called burning monk syndrome. Reports of murderous tyranny somewhere in Asia wash over us until a Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in front of a TV camera in an attempt to make the world sit up and take notice.
It gets our attention but not for long because the nature of emotional responses is that they're short-lived.
Repulsive though they are, the beheadings don't change a thing and don't tell us anything we didn't already know about militant, jihadist Islamism. In 2002 Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan by al Qaeda who released a video of the event charmingly entitled The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl.
Then, as now, the question is: how should we deal with this ideology? Last week Barack Obama was mocked for admitting his Administration doesn't have a strategy for dealing with Isis. He should have been applauded for his honesty and his recognition that what's needed is a long-term collective - as opposed to purely American - strategy, rather than a kneejerk response.