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The Value of One Life

Keeping Up Appearances and Leaving Hostages to the Woves

by DR. TERESA WHITEHURST

"He who saves the life of one saves the entire world."

The Talmud

Even one life is worth working to save…or is it? Using arguments that sound more like utilitarian philosophy than Christianity, purportedly Christian leaders Bush and Blair are trying to convince us that we should sacrifice one life today to save other lives from possible harm in the future.

Bush, Blair and now the appointed Allawi all use the same "verbal smartbombs" to defend their inaction in the face of suffering. These stock phrases–"We won’t negotiate with terrorists", "We must stay the course", "We won’t give in to demands", etc.–are repeated with mind-numbing frequency in the media, pre-emptively delivered in order silence doubts or protest. After while they just "sound true", which is why they are so dangerous to Americans at home and abroad: They prevent questioning and short-circuit innovative problem-solving that could otherwise be applied to defuse the hostage crisis in Iraq.

Another Christian in politics, conservative leader Michael Howard has argued for doing nothing to save hostage Kenneth Bigley’s life ("Wife begs captors to free hostage", BBC.com, 9/24/04): "I hope that Kenneth Bigley and his family will find it in their hearts to forgive me for what I am about to say, which is that the government is right that we can’t give in to people who behave in this barbaric fashion. If we did, it would be a green light to them to take more hostages and to kill more people."

"I’M JUST SAYING IT’S POSSIBLE!"

This notion–that negotiating for a hostage’s release will lead to more kidnappings, while refusing to negotiate will lead to fewer kidnappings–is assumed to be true…but, once again, is it?

If we care anything about human life and our much-vaunted "national security", Americans and Britains must stop relying on the media to do our thinking for us. As Henry Fonda said in "12 Angry Men", the classic film about groupthink and the value of questioning our assumptions, we need to look at all the evidence. "It’s possible, I’m just saying it’s possible!" Fonda told the impatient jurors who were sure they already knew the answer and wanted to waste no time examining the facts or considering alternative ideas.

Were we to actually examine the evidence of the past few years in Afghanistan and Iraq to see whether or not our leaders’ scorning of any attempts at rescue hostages or otherwise protect human life through diplomacy and negotiations works, what would we discover? Certainly it’s devastating to the hostages and their families. But might there be even more to fear from this pig-headedness?

Might we learn that our leaders’ "resolve" is perceived in other parts of the world as arrogance, and that it plays a role in fueling hostage-taking, terrorism and other heinous acts? Could it be that kidnappers, crazed by our military superiority and their powerlessness, respond by upping the ante?

Mr. Howard is obviously worried about the way the Bigley family–and the millions of us who are watching–will respond to the government’s inaction. He communicates his hope that "the family will find it in their hearts to forgive me for what I’m about to say, which is that the government is right…", which seems designed for public consumption.

In skipping right over the nitty-gritty of securing Kenneth Bigley’s release, Mr. Howard is repackaging this crisis as something that the family can resolve by "forgiving" him (Howard) and the government he represents. Supposedly they will accept their leaders’ decision to essentially sacrifice their loved one for the (hypothetical) greater good.

This is a brilliant strategy that kills two birds with one stone. It (1) makes it more difficult for the family to express their dismay at the government’s passivity and (2) shifts public opinion (and attention) from rescue to "forgiveness", thus creating social pressure on the family to forgive" the no-negotiate decision.

But will they? Would you?

More to the point, would Mr. Howard be so understanding and let bygones be bygones, were the shoe on the other foot, and he were pleading to Paul Bigley to save his own family member from a violent and gruesome death? Would George Bush, Laura Bush, Tony Blair or Cherie Blair "forgive" a governmental official for saying, "sorry but we’re allowing your family member’s death to prevent other deaths", were their loved one facing execution?

REFRAMING AND SPLITTING TO SOFTEN THE BLOW

In psychology, it’s known as "reframing" when someone shifts attention from one aspect of a situation to another–a skill at which advertizers, used car salesmen and other fast talkers have always excelled. It’s not a high "price", it’s a high "value". It’s not "bombing criminals as well as families who happened to be in the area", it’s "precision bombing to minimize civilian casualties". And so on.

In psychiatry, it’s known as "splitting" when you pit friends, family members or coworkers against one another in order to get them to argue with one another so much that, eventually, everybody’s seeing things your way. While they keep fighting amongst themselves, you come out smelling like a rose.

Neither Bush nor Blair can make a kidnapping with death threats any less upsetting to the average person who’s following it in the news. But if a sizeable number of us could be lulled away from this depressing story by references to "faith" and "prayer", acceptance could become a satisfactory substitute for the hard work of rescue. Once this is accomplished, we’ll argue till the cows come home on the right way to handle hostage situations, and our once-united pressure on those leaders to take positive action will splinter and subside.

Kenneth Bigley,s son Carl has pleaded for the rescue of his father, and Bigley,s brother Paul has made it abundantly that he,s angry at the Bush and Blair governments for doing nothing to rescue his brother clear ("Blair Contacts Hostage Family", Telegraph 21/09/2004). Just two days later, Paul,s position is granted only the tiniest mention in the BBC article, "Britain has ruled out negotiating with the kidnappers, and the US says it will not allow the release a woman scientist being held in Iraq. Mr Bigley’s brother Paul said America’s refusal had "sabotaged" his brother’s release."

As the world watches in mesmerized horror and hears the anguished pleas of Bigley and his family, many may begin to see Bush and Blair not as "resolute" or "strong, decisive leaders", but as callous, privileged men more concerned with protecting their image and political power than the life of an innocent man.

PRAYER AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR RESCUE?

The article continues, with only a hint of skepticism:

"The Bigley family, who are staying at the home of his mother Elizabeth, 86, in Walton, were visited by their parish priest Father John Thompson, of St Francis de Sales, on Thursday. He spent about 20 minutes talking to and praying with them. As he left, Father Thompson said: "Ken’s mother is strong. The attitude of the family is still positive and affirmative." The Roman Catholic priest added that he was a cousin of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Booth but had not influenced her husband, saying: "I’m a priest, not a politician.""

"Strong, positive and affirmative" while one’s child, husband, or brother is being threatened with execution? On a spiritual level, this sanguine report by the priest rings hollow. On a human level, it sounds surreal, unlike anything that you or I can imagine feeling under those circumstances. On the political level, it sounds a lot like strategic spin.

Paul Bigley has made it abundantly clear that he is angry at the Bush and Blair governments for doing nothing to rescue his brother, yet he received only the tiniest mention in the article, "Britain has ruled out negotiating with the kidnappers, and the US says it will not allow the release of a woman scientist being held in Iraq. Mr Bigley’s brother Paul said America’s refusal had "sabotaged" his brother’s release."

Problem: How can Bush and Blair refuse to help hostages such as Kenneth Bigley, yet come out smelling like roses?

Solution:

(1) Create a split in public opinion by highlighting the supposedly "positive and affirmative" attitudes of some family members in contrast to his brother’s (negative and non-affirmative?) insistence that our governments do everything possible to rescue him. This way we’ll get confused and become polarized once again, arguing ourselves into a frenzy about which part of the family is "right", and

(2) reframe the whole crisis as one that calls not for action, but for the soothing balm of prayer.

After-the-fact prayer is often used by Political Christians to seduce us into a "religious" state of quiet acceptance that reflects, on closer examination, a stifled conscience, helplessness, and despair. Let us pray before tragedies happen, so that we might find a way to prevent them!

Let us pray for hostages such as Mr. Bigley and their families–but let’s not stop there. We should also pray that the kidnappers will release Mr. Bigley or, at the very least, keep him alive long enough for public opinion to–and yes, this is possible–force our leaders to give up that "standing firm" nonsense and take seriously the need for reasonable negotiations (not because negotiations are in any way deserved by those cruel enough to behead a human being–but to save innocent lives).

But we should also pray fervently for leaders who’ll risk their reputations as "strong, decisive" tough guys by heeding Christ’s call to compassion–and the great courage that compassion requires–even when it means leaving the flock of 99 to find and rescue that one lost lamb.

DR. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist and writer. Her most recent book describes the nonviolent guidance of children, Jesus on Parenting, Baker Books, 9/2004.

You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org