from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

What is the value of a life? 

crossposted at dailykos and myleftwing

What is the value of a life?

Is an American inherently valued more than people of other nations? Is such a comparison valid? Is it even moral? Why is a teacher writing about this?

I am going to urge everyone who reads this to read today’s column by the incomparable Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe (and when oh when will he finally win a long overdue Pulitzer for commentary. It is entitled Making Enemies in Pakistan and in part addressed the question I raise. Here are the figures Jackson offers us

an Iraqi killed by the US Military $393

an American killed on 9/11 $1.2 million

an American injured on 9-11 $400,000

Jackson is such a superb writer it is exceedingly difficult to extract from the piece without in someway distorting the flow of his writing. I will offer a few selections, in the hope that if I have not already enticed you to read the entire piece, you will now be so inspired.

The piece is a response at least in part to the recent raid on the border of Pakistan in which in theory we targeted high Al Qaeda commanders. Please note what I have BOLDED in the first selection I offer:
Let us assume that we got some of the key commanders and weapons experts in Al Qaeda. The incident remains bloody proof that we are repeating the Vietnam mistake of destroying villages to save them. If the current reports hold up, we still killed three times more civilians than terrorists in the attack, a ratio we would not accept from our local police, no matter how desperate we are to curb youth violence or organized crime. That is a gruesome parallel to conservative estimates that American forces killed at least three times as many innocent civilians in invading and occupying Iraq than were killed on our shores on Sept. 11, 2001.

Jackson connects the impact of this attack with our failure to win hearts and minds in Vietnam by referring to the attitude of the most infamous of the US Commander’s in that theater, William Westmoreland:
The late American commander in Vietnam famously dehumanized civilian slaughter in our 10-to-1 kill ratio of enemy soldiers by saying, ''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner . . . life is cheap in the Orient."

Jackson notes that an independent analysis of the US compensation for the deaths of Iraqi civilians has paid less than 1/4 of the claims filed with the U S military. And since I quote figures used by Jackson, let me offer those the two statements from which I drew that data:
According to a 2004 report by Newsday, the US military had given out an average of $393 to Iraqi families whose loved ones were killed or maimed by our bombs and bullets.

Contrast that to the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund. It gave out an average of $2.1 million to families of 2,880 people who were killed and an average of $400,000 to the 2,680 people who were injured.

To provide us with a proper context, Jackson then compares these awards to the payments made for improper deaths caused by U.S. police:
Boston made a $5 million settlement with the family of Victoria Snelgrove, the woman who was killed by a pepper pellet during a rowdy Red Sox victory celebration. New York City made a $3 million settlement with the family of Amadou Diallo, who was hit with 41 bullets when police mistook his wallet for a gun. Riverside, Calif., made a $3 million settlement with the family of Tyisha Miller, who was hit in her car with 12 of 24 shots, accompanied by racist comments.

I would note, although I cannot currently provide a direct reference (The Washington Post search facility is currently unavailable) that one set of illegal arrests of protesters in Washington DC (they were not first ordered to disperse) has resulted in payments many times larger than the payment to the families of each killed by the U.S.

Jackson closes his piece by referring to VP Cheney’s remarks on Thursday where he again conflates 9/11 with Saddam and the Iraqi’s non existent WMD. Let me offer the last few lines without further adieu:
Cheney said again that we face ''a loose network of committed fanatics . . . enemies who hate us, who hate our country, who hate the liberties for which we stand." His response is fanatical acts of needlessly invading countries and destroying a village to kill a terrorist.

Soon, it will not be just our enemies who hate us.

I am aware of the economic arguments that are tendered in loss of life lawsuits in U.S. Courts -- we tend to value lives based on the remaining earning capacity of the individual killed. Thus since I approach my 60th birthday in May, I would presumed to have approximately 10+ working years left, and that at the earning capacity of a teacher, making my death valued far less than a rookie NFL or NBA first round draft choice, who even over the limited professional sports career eliminated by his death would be worth multiple millions of dollars.

Whether or not our economic comparisons among Americans are an appropriate way of measuring life is one problem. Would anyone here be prepared to argue that the life of Jack Welch, formerly head of GE, , or your average rap star, was of greater value than that of Martin Luther King junior, or perhaps that of the Dalai Lama? Based on earning capacity of each individual, we would value Welch and the rap star at a higher rate. That is a problem for our society.

But when we offer so little compensation for the “collateral damage” of lives of those in other nations, we give a clear message that we consider the lives of those people as far less worthy than those of our own people.

Using merely the injury compensation from 9/11 and figures for compensation in Iraq, an injury to an American is 1,000 times as important as the death of an Iraqi.

Whether or not you think I have made an odious comparison, or you agree with me that that imbalance is inherently immoral, be clear on this -- how that disparity will be viewed by others is that we do not care about any except our own. And that will also shape their interpretations of all of our actions.

I welcome your responses to this posting.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
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