Sunday, March 25, 2012

Life Arbitrage

Having returned from Dubai at the end of this week, I had intended to write a post about the decade of my experience there and the observations I made about the state of the region. However, the U.S. government’s announcement today that it was paying $50,000 per death in the recent Afghan homicides and $11,000 for every wounded victim trumped my plans. At a ceremony in Kandahar Province, the families of the dead were assembled to receive this extraordinary compensation. Extraordinary in that the going rate for previous civilian casualties had been typically $2,000. That’s right, the going rate for a human life authorized by a country that has a significant percentage of its population described as “pro-life” values human life at $2,000. Or maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe the only life that is valued is those born in the right jurisdiction.

Now before I dive more deeply into this matter, I trust that you pause for a moment and let this fact settle in. Our response to show that we, as a nation, care about the human tragedy of recent events is to pay the families of victims $50,000 per life extinguished. How are we feeling about this? Is this the ‘family values’ that we want for our legacy?

Let’s dig a bit deeper. Under the Military Compensation schedule, the U.S. Department of Defense offers a tax free “Death Gratuity” of $100,000 to surviving family members of those who fall in conflict. And government contractors, the class of citizens who have experienced the greatest number of reported casualties since 2010 in Iraq and Afghanistan, have much more opaque consideration for loss of life. L-3 Communications employees lead the somber statistics with the leading casualty count. Civilian government employees killed in conflict are entitled to a $10,000 Death Gratuity – reduced by burial allowances and costs associated with being terminated from employment by virtue of death. Mind you that civilian employees operating in areas under the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) are authorized to be paid (during their 'living' employment) up to $230,700 in a calendar year (capped at the annual salary of the Vice President of the United States).

At what point in our history did we decide that the principle of “blood money” was a legacy of the human experience worth keeping? In a world where we campaign against slavery of all sorts – child labor, sex trafficking, sweatshops, and the like – where is the impulse of William Wilberforce to finish the abolitionist movement he had the courage to pioneer for 26 years before the passage of the 1807 Slave Trade Act? When thousands of people in organizations across the globe are philosophizing about the prospect of an evolutionary leap in human consciousness, where are the voices saying that exchanging money for life is a stain on civilization that must be ended?

Mind you, it’s not just the extermination of life where we’ve got this wrong. We’ve told our children that, when marriages don’t work, we can transact parental care for money. We’ve decided that when life pulls marriage apart, the finality of separation is transacted by paying the marriage ‘death gratuity’. Have anyone of us ever met anyone for whom this transaction actually worked? Was the settlement really worth the loss of intimacy? Did we ever see the wound of a loss of life and love healed with the ointment of money? There is no Legal Tender that can hold a candle to the tenderness of humanity.

The families who suffered in Afghanistan are not whole because we paid them $50,000 for their loss. The families of L-3 contractors are suffering as well – just with far less publicity and under the President’s ruse that has reduced troops while expanding anonymous contractors in harm’s way. They need an America that actually shows up with a humanity that values their lives. They have stories to tell, wisdom to share, and means of engagement that must be valued. Their children need access to education and sanctuary. Their mothers and fathers need opportunities for peaceful engagement in a global value exchange. Their grandfathers and grandmothers need to see the cessation of conflict that for generations have kept their homeland in constant violence. And until their lives are valued in their living, no blood money will absolve us our collective inhumanity.

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” - William Wilberforce prior to the 1789 Abolition Bill vote in Parliament.

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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave