Thursday, June 23, 2016

Life and Death

Last week, I wrote about my disinclination to lump the people killed in Orlando together as “victims” of an armed madman’s rage or even as "people" whose horrific deaths were somehow more terrible than if they had been murdered in some less dramatic way as individuals rather than en masse as a group. A number of readers took issue, asking me if I really thought that there was something inherently demeaning to each deceased individual in the suggestion that his or her death was more awful than it would otherwise have been because of the numbers involved. Given that I’ve said the same thing many times about victims of terror in several other contexts—that, human life being of inestimable value, there is something slightly off about taking context into account when evaluating the deaths of innocents—I was slightly surprised by those responses. And yet, even now after having rethought the issue over these last days, I stand by my original remark and continue to believe that, had Omar Mateen killed one single person instead of fifty, that person’s death would be no less awful to contemplate—and the loss to the world no less acute—because forty-nine other people weren’t killed by the same crazy person on the same evening. As I wrote last week, each person murdered in Orlando was a world unto him or herself, a universe of history, ability, intelligence, and potential. As the great Hans Fallada wrote, “every man dies alone and on his own terms,” i.e., as an individual, as a person, as a complete world.

That there is something perverse and demeaning in the effort to evaluate the worth of a human life is key. Indeed, for most Americans the whole notion of assigning a specific value to a specific person’s life sounds like something connected to the slave trade in olden times, a wretched, degrading effort that rested on the traders’ ability to maximize profit by “correctly” determining the dollar-value of any particular man, woman, or child put up for sale. (Just for the record, when the Bible discusses the case of the naïf who pledges the value of a specific person to the Temple, a pledge both ridiculous and so inherently sacred that it cannot simply be set aside or ignored, it fixes the specific amounts to be paid based on age and gender specifically to avoid the possibility of people actually attempting to say what a specific individual is worth monetarily. I’ll write about that very interesting chapter some other time.) When expressed as a philosophical concept, the concept that life is of incalculable value sounds relatively inarguable. But the corollary notion that the lives (and, by extension, the deaths) of specific individuals can also not be rationally or ethically hierarchized feels seriously less undisputable…at least most of the time and in most contexts.

We establish such hierarchies all the time, after all. There are more people in need of all varieties of organ transplants than there are donors, and so must the regulatory agencies that supervise such procedures establish a way to determine whose life among those in need, say, of a new kidney or heart is more worth saving. The version of the famous “trolley” conundrum that imagines the conductor of a runaway train having to decide whether to steer a train he cannot stop towards a terminally-ill elderly man or a healthy child is another good example: for all we claim that no one can assign actual worth to any human life, it would be the rare person indeed who would say that it doesn’t matter what the conductor decides because the death of a centenarian suffering from an incurable disease with just weeks to live is no more or less tragic than the death of a seven-year-old in excellent health who could conceivably live on for eighty or ninety more years and whose potential contributions to the world cannot yet even be imagined. And even if some among us would argue that there is something inherently wrong in saying that the life of a child is more valuable than the life of an elderly person, then surely even they would admit that the situation feels different when the numbers are ratcheted up sufficiently and the conductor’s choice is differently imagined to present him having to choose between aiming his train at a single old man and a group of fifty or eighty children. Or between steering his runaway train towards an elderly man and his ailing wife, and aiming it at a nuclear power plant that, if seriously enough damaged, could conceivably spew radioactive material into the atmosphere and end up harming or even killing countless thousands. In such cases, it feels possible to determine the relative value of two sets of human lives without transgressing any ethical boundaries. But how to do it and what criteria to bring to bear in making such a decision—that is a different matter entirely.

Horrible things have happened in our world just recently. An eleven-year-old girl from Bexley, Ohio, was killed earlier this week when a tree struck by lightning fell on her cabin in a summer camp in Bennington, Indiana. A little boy from Omaha died after being snatched by an alligator from some shallow water at the edge of lagoon at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Fourteen boys and girls aged nine to eleven, none of whom was wearing a life jacket, died when the raft they were paddling around on in Lake Syamozero in the part of northwestern Russia called Karelia capsized during a sudden storm. And all this has happened since the horrific murder of fifty young people out for a night of carefree dancing and flirting in Orlando.

To say that each of these horrific incidents is each other’s precise equal because, the value of life being unquantifiable, the loss of any life is a tragedy no different from the loss of any other life sounds reasonable enough at first blush. But is that really how we feel? The girl from Ohio was the victim of a terrible accident that, truly, none could have foreseen. The little boy in Florida, not so clear: given that five alligators were taken from the lagoon after the boy’s death and that the boy was obeying the sole sign in the area that merely said “No Swimming,” a sign that most parents (myself included) would easily take to mean that swimming is forbidden but not splashing around at water’s edge, it feels as though there must be some real responsibility of both the moral and legal varieties to be assigned. Does that make the boy’s death more tragic than the girl’s? When put like that, the question feels bizarre even to pose aloud. But agreeing that a disaster none could have foreseen is different in kind from—and thus reasonably deemed more awful than—one that could easily have been averted doesn’t feel as though it constitutes a rejection of the principle that no individual’s life can be judged more valuable than anyone else’s.

The situation regarding the children in Karelia make this point even more forcefully: this disaster happened at a holiday resort in which the children were theoretically being watched over by responsible adults, yet they were permitted out on a huge lake without life jackets despite cyclone warnings being in effect for the region. (Four adults, including the director and deputy director of the hotel and two water-safety instructors have been taken into custody and will probably face criminal charges in the matter.) So although it feels wrong to attempt, however ridiculously, to determine which loss of life constituted the greater tragedy, it also feels natural to categorize these horrors in terms of the degree to which they could possibly have been avoided. In other words, attempting to evaluate the pristine value of any human life seems wrong. But establishing a hierarchy based on the degree to which a given individual’s death could have been averted feels not only right, but reasonable and just. But is that what we want to assert: that the loss of life can best be evaluated in terms of whom there is to blame? The children in Russia died because the people theoretically watching over them were inept and irresponsible. But what then should we say about the dead in Orlando, none of whom died because of ineptitude or incompetence on the part of others but who were gunned down in cold blood by a murderer who knew exactly what he was doing? Does the fact that they were brutally executed make their loss different in kind from the death of that poor child in Indiana who died when a tree fell on her bunk?

In my opinion, the most reasonable approach to these issues would be to agree that we can assign a degree of tragedy to deaths based on the degree to which they could possibly have been averted without contravening the basic principle that human life is possessed of incalculable value.  But another idea suggests itself to me as well: that, without attempting to evaluate the worth of lives, we can entirely reasonably assign value to deaths based on the posthumous good they inspire.

And that brings me to my final example of a young person who died last week: Mahmoud Rafat Bardran, a fifteen-year-old Palestinian teenager in the wrong place at the wrong time as members of the IDF opened fire on Palestinians who were attempting to murder Israeli civilians driving west on Route 443 outside Jerusalem by throwing rocks and firebombs at randomly chosen cars. The dead boy does not appear to have been among those attempting to take innocent Israeli lives; he and some friends had gone swimming after breaking their Ramadan fast and were returning home in a taxi when their vehicle was accidentally hit by gunfire. To describe his death as a tragedy does not require any specific moral courage; how can the accidental death of a teenager not be deemed tragic? In that sense, he joins the others as innocent victims of circumstance. But by mentioning such a politically charged death in the same context as the others, I sharpen my earlier point: his life was worth no more or less than anyone else’s, but the worth, so to speak, of his death will be determined posthumously by the effect, if any, it has on the world.

There is already no dearth of individuals lining up to assign blame. For some, his death was, to quote one Palestinian official, a “cold-blooded assassination.” That seems to me an example of almost grotesque grandstanding by someone prepared to stand on the back of a dead child to score some political points, but to wave his death away as mere collateral damage only works if you are prepared to share that thought with his grieving parents, if you are prepared to say that the unwarranted death of an unarmed teenager riding home in a taxi is somehow less tragic than the death of an innocent murdered by terrorists while eating ice cream in the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv.

The stories are not each other’s equivalents. The Palestinian boy was killed accidentally by people behaving nobly in the defense of innocents, whereas the people at the Sarona Market were killed by people behaving criminally and, to say the least, ignobly. But, in the end, none of them deserved to die…and that’s my exact point:  no innocent life is more or less valuable than any other, but deaths can be evaluated in terms of what they bring in their wake.In most contexts, this pill feels easier to swallow because it doesn’t feel like there could be another side to the story: who could argue against more sturdy bunks in summer camps, more clear signage at resorts where alligators might possibly be lurking near children playing in shallow water, or more stringent safety training for people charged with watching over children in boats or on rafts? In the context of the Middle East, however, nothing is ever that simple. Still, what single incident could be more likely to move the parties involved to seek and find a way peacefully to co-exist in the same corner of the world than the death of a child? You could say the same about all the other victims of terror or of the response to terror, of course, including the victims of last week’s horrific shooting in Tel Aviv. But what if this specific incident were somehow to bring the world to its senses? It feels unlikely. It could hardly be more unlikely. But unlikely isn’t impossible…and with that hopeful thought in place, I conclude my ninth year of writing weekly with this, my 355th more or less consecutive letter to you all.

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