From Liberty Street: The Worth of Human Life

John Turner

A portion of the American political spectrum is having a hard time imagining that non-American lives are valuable. Consequently, when non-Americans are killed, it is seen as mildly regrettable but not actually of much significance. This is a manifestation of what can only be called insane nationalism, a mental disorder that has run amok in this country over the past six years.

We see signs of it everywhere. David Brooks, for example, in his Sunday column  in the New York Times castigated those who are opposing Joseph Lieberman in Connecticut. These irrationalists, says Brooks "reduce everything to Iraq," when, after all, it is only a single issue.  Brooks seems to think that support for an invasion and occupation of a country which has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths is no big deal. The people who rise up against Lieberman because he has supported and continues to support these actions must be pure fanatics. Why do they care about this so much? Don't they understand that Lieberman is "transparently the most kind-hearted and well-intentioned of men." For Mr. Brooks, the slaughter of multitudes should have no influence on Lieberman's status as a kind-hearted man because those weren't American lives.

Over the past several years I have seen numerous statements from high ranking American officials saying that people in the Middle East don't place as much value on human life as we do. The implication is that since they don't care much about their own lives there's not a strong reason for us to worry about them either. This is a case of a fatuous judgment being used to rationalize abominable behavior. And, yet, it passes with relatively little criticism among us.

The way in which Americans view the lives of Iraqis was addressed cogently by Andrew Bacevich, the author of The New American Militarism, in Sunday's Washington Post. It's a powerful essay and one that ought to be given serious attention by the American media. But it will doubtless pass with little notice. Bacevich rightly regrets the outright murders of Iraqis by American soldiers but suggests these high profile cases which are so atrocious they can't escape investigation have less to do with our reputation among Iraqis than the multitude of so-called accidental deaths which are barely noted and quickly vanish from media attention. Bacevich recalls our attention to Nahiba Husayif Jassim, a pregnant woman who was killed by American troops when she was being rushed to the hospital for the delivery of her baby. Her car, said the Americans, was going too fast and didn't stop when the driver was signaled. Too bad, the American authorities said, in effect. Her brother, though, had a different take on the issue. "God take revenge on the Americans and those who brought them here," he announced.  "They have no regard for our lives."

Wars and military occupations beget atrocities. That's simply because power invites abuse. American armies are no more or no less subject to corruption of that sort than any other army. It's certainly true that acknowledged crimes by soldiers spark hatred of America generally. Illegal actions are regrettable. But at least we have some means of responding to them. Perpetrators are arrested and  some of those responsible are sanctioned. But attitudes that excuse lethal "accidents" are much harder to address. Those attitudes pervade not only the American military but the American public generally. And they are based on the idea that an American life is not only worth more than a foreign life, but is worth vastly more, so much more that the loss of a foreign life barely counts.

We can measure this arithmetically. When an American soldier in Iraq is killed, his family receives a payment of $400,000. When the Americans kill an Iraqi accidentally, the dead person's family is offered about $2,500.

Obviously, people throughout the world care more about people who are close to them than they do about those who are remote. That's inevitable and though it may violate some esoteric standards of morality it's probably not a bad thing.

The American attitude towards the relative worth of ourselves and foreigners, however, is not simply a matter of natural affection. Belief that American lives are more precious than others has been advanced as a doctrine of the American civic religion, an essential element of American patriotism. Not all Americans take it on faith, but enough do so that it colors our foreign policy and to a considerable extent determines how we are seen by the rest of the world. It's reasonableness cannot be discussed openly in American political debate.

There's no doubt that it is doing us great harm or that it will cost us more in the future than it has till now. Yet, despite its potency for harm there are few signs we will find the courage to address it.

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