Is Each Individual Life Precious?

Distinguishing between "us and them"

by Edward S. Herman

Z magazine, October 2000


It is a central feature of U.S. ideology that the civilized, modernized Judeo-Christian West, and notably the "indispensable state," is peace-loving, humane, and values human life in a way different from the less-civilized and more barbaric peoples of the world (i.e., all others, but especially the enemies of the moment like Islamists [with honorary exceptions like Saudi Arabia] and Serbs). This underlies the new liberal interventionists' view that U.S. foreign policy is driven by ideals as well as interests, and that with their guidance it can be made even more principled (David Rieff, "The Crusaders: Moral Principles, Strategic Interests, and Military Force," World Policy Journal, Summer 2000). The overall ideological view is encapsulated in Michael Wines's bald assertion that there is a "yawning gap between the West and much of the world on the value of a single life" (NYT, June 13, 1999).

A major problem with this view is empirical: the United States has killed vast numbers from the colonial era to Hiroshima-Nagasaki to the present, and it has shown a marked proclivity to use force to accomplish its ends, which is the basis for its buildup of an immense military establishment. It aggressively pushed the nuclear arms race and even today seeks military dominance in space with its missile program at the expense of both domestic programs and the possibilities of a more peaceful world. It has what Ralph Lapp years ago called a "weapons culture," that features the killing or threat to kill large numbers; and it has long maintained a complementary political position of being always ready to "negotiate"-in an Orwellian sense only-from a "position of strength" (Dean Acheson) that requires the enemy to surrender or suffer unlimited devastation. This reliance on force some might regard as itself barbaric, and incompatible with peace-loving and humane values and a high rating to the value of human life. (For David Rieff, the increasing military budget following the victorious and moral "crusade" presents a puzzle, which he explains away by "ingrained habit and orientation.")

Maybe Only We Are Precious ?

Of course, there is the question of whose life is rated precious. The force mobilized by the weapons culture is to be deployed against enemies, nominally to protect "national security" but in reality mainly to help the home country dominate and exploit people abroad. And in fact there has been a long tendency in Western culture to distinguish sharply between "us" and "them," dating back to Old Testament law and practice. The commandment "thou shalt not kill" clearly applied only to the in-group, not to the others who the Lord regularly urged "his people" to expel, slaughter, and enslave. ("And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.... [And when their generals returned with women and children captives, Moses was angry and instructed them:] Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by Iying with him" [Numbers 31]).

The distinction between us and them is also reinforced by the arrogance of power and racism-both deeply imbedded in this national culture, where the Native Americans were exterminated, blacks enslaved and then kept in second class status or worse, and Vietnamese slaughtered more easily by being classed as savages, genetically inferior, and "yellow dwarves" (Lyndon Johnson). David Stannard calls the destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere "the most thoroughgoing genocide in the history of the world" (Stannard, American Holocaust: the Conquest of the New World).

The ability to slaughter vast numbers in good conscience is also greatly aided by the demonization of enemies and an intense focus on their real and fabricated misdeeds. This process has reached a temporary new pinnacle in the case of Iraq, where the demonization of Saddam Hussein and the alleged threat of his possessing "weapons of mass destruction"-which the U.S. and Britain had supplied him with when he was in imperial service in the 1980s-have made it possible for the U.S.-British combine to kill over a million Iraqi civilians by "sanctions of mass destruction" without disturbing the image of Western benevolence. (This is of course helped by media inattention to unworthy victims, discussed below. But liberals follow in line here, and serve an imperial apologetic function, to a remarkable degree: in a recent exchange between Robert Kuttner and E.J. Dionne evaluating Clinton's presidency, Kuttner declares Clinton's foreign policy to have been a "mixed bag"-good on the Middle East and Kosovo-but the word Iraq doesn't appear in this exchange, nor Colombia.

In a remarkable process of self-deception and transference, it has long been part of the ethos of the killers and their ideologues that it is the victims who fail to value human life as we do, and perhaps feel pain less. During the Vietnam War, critical U.S. observers spoke sardonically of the "mere gook rule" that prevailed in Saigon courts, differentiating penalties for killing U.S. citizens and "mere gooks" (Philip Shabecoff, "Murder Verdict Eased," NYT, March 31, 1970). In his book The Limits of Intervention (1970), former Pentagon official and noted "dove" Townsend Hoopes contended that the Vietnamese did not "love life, and fear pain," as we do, and that "happiness" is "beyond the emotional comprehension of the Asian poor." The Vietnamese are not "reasonable" and "defy us by a readiness to struggle, suffer, and die on a scale that seems to us beyond the bounds of humanity." They virtually invite us to "carry our strategic logic, to its conclusion,...which is genocide." But we are unwilling to do this, which would "contradict our own value system."

Hoopes's assertion that the Vietnamese loved life less than we do is based on no evidence and is straightforward racist prejudice. He is also unable to entertain even the possibility that the desire for freedom from colonial rule might weigh heavily in the Vietnamese culture and value system. It never seems to have struck him that, with the U. S. actually doing the killing "on a scale...beyond the bounds of humanity," what was being demonstrated most clearly was that Vietnamese lives were rated at zero in "our own value system." Hoopes never challenged the morality of the "strategic logic" of threatening to kill almost without limit to achieve the political objective of imposing our chosen rule on a distant society. That imperial logic and goal are givens for a spokesman for imperial violence-so that it is not the country that issues an ultimatum and then kills on a vast scale that does not value life, it is the victims who refuse to surrender.

This is the logic of imperial violence even today. As Saddam Hussein refuses to meet the conditions imposed on him by the U.S. and Britain for an ending of sanctions, which now clearly require his ouster from rule, his people suffer mass misery and deaths as a result. But it is Saddam's and his military associates' fault-Saddam does not value each life as we do, as he could surrender, leave office, and end sanctions; and his associates could assassinate him and thereby obtain the desired relief. Similarly, Yugoslavia was responsible for the NATO 78-day bombing assault because they would not accept the NATO terms calling for a NATO occupation of Kosovo; and to assure that NATO could bomb first and show the beast who is boss, the proviso was put in the negotiation instrument at Rambouillet allowing NATO full occupation of all Yugoslavia, assuring rejection. But Yugoslavia could have surrendered earlier, and currently the Serb generals could dispose of Milosevic, bringing an end to the deadly sanctions now in place; so that here as ever the use of force and killing by deprivation was virtually imposed on the peace-loving NATO powers. (Again, liberals today regularly fall into this apologetic mode of thought: those who have defended the NATO war on Yugoslavia rarely grasped or mentioned NATO's refusal to negotiate at Rambouillet, and Paul Hockenos in a featured review in ln These Times [August 7, 2000] very explicitly made the Serbs intransigent for not accepting NATO's ultimatum, which he misinterpreted as representing a perfectly reasonable "negotiating" position.)

How Precious Are the Worthy Victims?

While the unworthy victims of enemy states or those killed by prized clients like Indonesia are clearly not valued by U.S. Ieaders and establishment, it turns out that the worthy victims are more worthy in propaganda service than in their actual treatment by U.S. and Western policy-makers. In the case of Kosovo, NATO's use of depleted uranium munitions and fragmentation bombs was profoundly contrary to the long-run interests of the Kosovo Albanians. The bombing was also more aggressive in attacking trains and convoys than was consistent with great value attaching to Albanian civilians, and in one dramatic case, on the day in which NATO bombs killed 87 ethnic Albanians and injured a hundred more at Korisa, at the evening press conference NATO spokespersons Jamie Shea and a colleague reported that NATO had had "another effective day" in Kosovo in which "operations went well." While NATO was lavish in spending on the devastation of Yugoslavia during the 78-day bombing period, in the post-bombing era the NATO powers have put negligible resources into Kosovo reconstruction that would help the erstwhile worthy victims. In July, House and Senate Appropriations

Committees voted down a puny administration request for $107 million operating expenses for Kosovo and East Timor, construction outlays are not on the agenda. As in Panama and Nicaragua, as well as Vietnam, we are witnessing another superpower hit-and-run operation.

A notable feature of the Kosovo war was the inflation of Serb killings-running from 10,000 up to 500,000-along with great indignation and cries of genocide-and later, a search for victims of almost unprecedented intensity, producing a modest number of bodies of uncertain origin, but clearly demonstrating a NATO policy of dispensing disinformation. On August 17, 2000, NATO spokespersons finally conceded that their wartime estimates of killings had been too high, following a statement on the same day by Paul Risley, the Hague Tribunal's press spokesman, who admitted that "The final number of bodies uncovered will be less than 10,000 and probably more accurately determined as between two and three thousand." (Quoted in Jonathan Steele, "Special report: Kosovo, Figures put on Serb killings too high," The Guardian, August 18, 2000.) Despite their enthusiastic reporting of the original inflated claims, no report of this Tribunal or NATO correction of the record and admission of earlier misrepresentations has yet surfaced in any U.S. mainstream media outlet.

Even before this, the evidence was strong that there had been gross inflation of the killings. And in an interview on French TV on April 23, 2000, confronted with the findings of reduced numbers, former NATO PR spokesperson Jamie Shea asked: "Should the international community have less reason to intervene if the numbers were 2,000, 3,000, or 10,000 dead rather than 100,000 or 500,000 or a million? Does human life have value only with a million dead?" So here we are back to NATO's and the West's view that human life is precious irrespective of numbers-but Shea was not upset at the 87 deaths of Albanians killed by NATO bombs at Korisa, where "operations went well." But the deeper Shea misrepresentation is the implication that NATO's bombing was responding to the numbers of alleged dead rather than being the cause of those deaths: by eliciting the "entirely predictable" Serb response and via direct NATO operations. In short, the overall deadly consequences of the NATO war suggest that NATO's inflation of numbers and indignation at Serb killings functioned strictly as a propaganda cover for NATO's own inhumanitarian violence.

Shea's statement brings to mind Jean Lacouture's fabricated claim of 1977 that the Khmer Rouge had "boasted" that they had killed two million Cambodians. After this had been exposed as a lie, Lacouture's reply was: when faced with a monstrous regime, does it matter whether it "has murdered thousands or hundreds of thousands of wretched people"? But the order of magnitude matters a great deal, otherwise why lie about it? Lies commonly serve propaganda ends, and very often where these dishonest means serve allegedly humanitarian ends, upon close inspection it turns out that the benevolent ends are as fraudulent as the means employed to justify them. The West never tried to help the Cambodian victims of the Khmer Rouge, and when the Vietnamese ousted Pol Pot the West rushed to his aid, using him to help bleed Vietnam (and the Cambodians, now unworthy victims in the Vietnamese sphere of influence). The worthy Kosovo Albanians are worse off now than before NATO aid, and they could have been made much better off if NATO had not insisted on a solution by extreme violence. In a July 2000 Appeal, ten Belgian law professors state that, "the war strategy that devastated Yugoslavia and made Kosovo non-viable produced more refugees and victims than would have been caused by any other combination of political pressure and diplomacy. "

Are All Of Us "Us" ?

It is also pretty obvious that in this polarized society, with inequality increasing, that not all U.S. citizens are precious-that the welfare of all of "us" is not weighted very heavily in the policy calculation of the U. S. Ieadership and dominant elite. In Manufacturing Consent it was shown that among the 100 religious victims of state terror in

j Latin America, who received less media attention in the aggregate than the single Polish victim of Communist state terror (Jerzy Popieluszko), were eight U.S. citizens. The media's silent treatment of those victimized citizens closely paralleled the U.S. government's policy of silence and apologetics in the interest of protecting client regimes from adverse publicity. In Chile, U.S. officials covered up-and may even have been involved in-the 1973 murders of U.S. citizens Charles Horman and Frank Terazzi. It has now been disclosed that Penn State academic Boris Weisfeiler's disappearance and almost certain murder by the Pinochet government in 1984 was known to and covered up by U.S. officials (Ken Guggenheim, "Piecing together Pa. man's fate: Files show U.S. had evidence of arrest by Chilean dictator's forces," Philadelphia Inquirer, August 28, 2000). "Constructive engagement" does not bring greater "leverage" in such cases; it means that the U.S. government aligns with the terror state in making U.S. citizens expendable.

Even U. S. soldiers are not always worthy victims when killed or suffering. It is true that dead U. S. soldiers and body bags are to be avoided at all costs in U. S. military actions abroad, as they are heavily publicized and entail political costs. But the interesting fact is that once the GIs get home they move instantaneously from worthy to unworthy. If they suffer from Agent Orange damage in Vietnam or obscure disorders following the Iraq war, the military establishment fights their claims relentlessly, and the media and politicos give them little or no support. The same is true if they become domestic MIAs-Missing [Here] in America-without jobs and otherwise distressed. They can stay missing. Only the MIAs still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War are precious.

Also not precious are poor blacks, and other poor people, whose condition has worsened absolutely as well as relatively in the New World Order. Their treatment in prisons is more and more savage and lacking in humanity and interest in rehabilitation. The first order of business in treating homeless people is increasingly to get them out of the way. So as the country has gotten richer, well able to afford making life decent for these millions, the dominant class has actively immiserated them. This is also the death penalty capital of the world, but so many people on death row or already executed have been belatedly found innocent that George Ryan, the conservative governor of Illinois, has suspended all executions in his state. But the king of death row, George W. Bush, is very possibly the next president of this country that supposedly values each individual as precious. The Christian right is giving him passionate support because he is their best hope for protecting the "right to life"-of the fetus.

People of the world, watch out-the indispensable country is an exceedingly dangerous nut house.

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