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Deciding the Value of Human Life

Are We Gods?

by NICHOLAS KRAMER

This holiday season, as you walk through a public area (any mall, grocery, or restaurant will do), start counting the people you see there. Look in their faces, listen to their conversations, and try to appreciate each of them not just as strangers, but as fellow human beings. When you get to 40 (making sure to include at least 29 women and children), consider that this is the bare minimum number of civilians whose lives were brought to violent ends by US/NATO bombs during the recent military intervention in Libya, according to the New York Times. Keep counting until you get to “perhaps more than 70” and consider that these 30-plus people represent the margin of error in the NYT analysis; this uncertainty about even the number of completely innocent people we have killed is a reality of “humanitarian” war in which we drop hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosives from the skies upon the people we are “helping” below.

Of course, this estimated civilian death toll doesn’t take into account the scores of innocent people killed by other forces in the Libyan conflict, which is an inevitable result of turning an entire country into a war zone. Nor does it reflect the deaths of the actual combatants, who should be neither ignored nor forgotten (just ask the parents of any American soldier killed in one of our many wars). In fact, ask any parent, period; when you think about the volume of love, sweat, and tears that go into raising a child, it is almost unfathomable to think that any life can just be snuffed out. Even more astonishing, whether you subscribe to creationism or the theory of evolution, is that each human life is quite literally the product of the entire history of the human race. When any person is killed, a direct line going back to the very first human that walked the earth is erased from our future. We will never know the artists, poets, and peacemakers who have never lived because their parents were killed in senseless wars.

In any case, even if we limit ourselves to just those poor souls who qualify as “innocent civilians” killed directly by the US military, seriously ask yourself if you would be willing to condemn those 40 to 70 (or more) people to death in the name of “the greater good.” Now consider if you’d be willing to murder each and every one of them in the name of a “humanitarian” military intervention in a country such as Libya (do you even know where that is?). Although I would hope these questions are merely rhetorical, I know that some people truly believe that human lives can be expended as mere pawns on the chessboard of “international relations.” I am not one of them.

If looking a few dozen condemned people in the face doesn’t phase you, imagine walking or driving through Kansas City, KS, Syracuse, NY, or Rockford, IL (population sizes available here), and knowing that every single man, woman, and child living in one of those cities represents a person who is now dead as a result of the recently “ended” US war in Iraq. Now consider that this number of casualties (150,726 human beings) is the lowest credible estimate of the war-related deaths. Imagine instead, at the high end of the statistical spectrum, that the city of San Jose, CA (the 10th largest city in America with a population of just under a million people), is filled with nothing but corpses; this begins to approach the 1,033,000 people who may have died unnecessarily in America’s war on Iraq.

Alternatively, if numbers alone are too abstract, consider the “litany of horrors” described by Kelly Vlahos in her brilliant piece on the birth defects among the children of Fallujah: “babies born with two heads, one eye in the middle of the face, missing limbs, too many limbs, brain damage, cardiac defects, abnormally large heads, eyeless, missing genitalia, riddled with tumors.” Reportedly, in 2010, congenital malformations were observed in fifteen percent of all births in Fallujah, compared to three percent in the United States. Vlahos describes some of the possible causes of these horrors, including the American military’s use of depleted uranium-tipped weapons and toxic plumes from burning waste on US bases. The war will never end for the people of that destroyed and contaminated city of 326,471 people.

Regarding Libya, many commentators have celebrated the “success” of the so-called “humanitarian” mission there. Most of the media moved on from Libya alongside the American fighter jets, although NPR recently covered the danger inherent in a country now rife with guns and short on rule-of-law. In a major hospital in Libya’s capitol city, for instance, men with guns regularly roam around threatening doctors and patients alike, including in the middle of surgery. The International Crisis Group estimates there are now 125,000 armed militia members in Libya. Only time will tell how well this supposed “success” holds together. Similarly, with the withdrawal of most US troops from Iraq, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently said “As difficult as [the Iraq war] was… I think the price has been worth it, to establish a stable government in a very important region of the world.”

Apart from the sheer arrogance and insensitivity of this statement, it is worth asking if we are even capable of determining what price is worth hundreds of thousands of human lives (in Iraq) or the deaths of dozens of innocent civilians (in Libya)? Are we gods with the power and moral authority to determine who will live and who will die? If not, then what business do we have proclaiming what is “worth” the deaths of people half-way around the world? More importantly, what business do we have killing (or causing the deaths of) those people in the first place? New Year’s is a traditionally a time for reflection; I hope that each of us will consider these questions and ask ourselves what kind of people we want to be. Shall we be murderous gods or mere human beings in a world full of them? The choice is ours.

Nicholas Kramer is a former associate investigator for an oversight & investigations (O&I) committee in the United States Senate. He no longer lives or works in Washington, D.C. He may be reached through his website at TakingResponsibilityForEmpire.com.