What is the value of a human life?
We usually think of this in terms of sentiment -- of memories, grief, love , longing, of everything, in short, that is too deep and valuable to put a price upon. Then again, is anything in our world truly priceless?
As anyone who has ever taken out a life insurance policy knows, we humans are quite capable of putting a price on life -- and death. In her book "Pricing the Priceless Child," Viviana Zelizer reminds us that, starting in the 1870s in the United States, in that era before child labor laws, the business of insuring working-class children, who were then valuable to poor families, achieved enormous success. For a few pennies a week, $10 in all, you could, for instance, insure your 1-year-old against the future loss to the family of his or her earning power.
The courts weighed in, assessing the literal value of an earning child to a family. In those days, poor urban children died regularly in staggering numbers under horse's hooves, the wheels of street cars, and trains. In an 1893 editorial, the New York Times referred to this as "child slaughter," and juries reacted accordingly. When Ettie Pressman, just 7 years old, died under a team of horses in 1893 while crossing New York's Ludlow Street with her 9-year-old sister, a court granted her father $1,000 to compensate him for "his daughter's services and earnings." ("Yes," her father testified, with "what I earn and what the children earn used together we have enough. They earn $3 each week.")
This came to mind recently, thanks to another kind of "child slaughter" -- in this case by U.S. Marines, who, in early March, went on a killing rampage near Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Sorry, in Pentagon parlance, this is referred to as "using excessive force." A platoon of elite Marine Special Operations troops in a convoy of humvees was ambushed by a suicide bomber in a minivan and one was wounded. Initially, it was reported that as many as 10 Afghans were killed and 34 wounded as the platoon fled the site.
Later, it was admitted that the Marines had wielded that "excessive force" excessively and long after the ambush had ended, laying down a deadly field of fire at six spots, at least, along a 10-mile stretch of road. Their targets, according to a draft report of the U.S. military investigation of the incident (which the Washington Post got its hands on) were Afghans, on foot and in vehicles who were "exclusively civilian in nature" and had engaged in "no kind of provocative or threatening behavior."
In the process, the Marines were reported to have murdered "12 people -- including a 4-year-old girl, a 1-year-old boy and three elderly villagers.'' According to a report by Carlotta Gall of the New York Times, a "16-year-old newly married girl was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family's farmhouse. (U.S. troops at the time took the camera of an Afghan Associated Press photographer who happened to come upon the scene and "deleted" photographs from it, including ones "of a four-wheel drive vehicle where three Afghans had been shot to death inside.")
After much protest in Afghanistan, Col. John Nicholson met with the families of the (now) 19 Afghans who had been killed and the 50 who had been wounded by the Marines. He offered this official apology: "I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people." And then he paid about $2,000 per death to family members. The military calls these "condolence payments" and makes similar ones for deaths judged wrongful, in Iraq.
Recently, through a Freedom of Information Act request, the American Civil Liberties Union pried loose some of the requests for compensation payments submitted by Iraqis and Afghans (and the military's decisions on them, including denials of payment). They make grim reading. Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher offered this description: "What price (when we do pay) do we place on the life of a 9-year-old boy, shot by one of our soldiers who mistook his book bag for a bomb satchel? Would you believe $500? And when we shoot an Iraqi journalist on a bridge we shell out $2,500 to his widow -- but why not the measly $5,000 she had requested?"
In 2005, Iraqi payments already seemed to average about $2,500 for a wrongful death. That, for instance, is what the families of two-dozen unarmed Iraqis slaughtered in another Marines-run-amok moment at Haditha, also after an attack on a convoy of humvees that wounded a Marine, received. ("They ranged from babies to adult males and females," said Ryan Briones, a Marine witness to the event. "I'll never be able to get that out of my head. I can still smell the blood.")
This practice is not new to President Bush's wars. During the Vietnam War, as part of the American pacification program, U.S. officials made what were called solatium payments for wrongful deaths caused by American forces. Back then, the United States valued Vietnamese adults at about $35, while children's lives were worth about $15.
We don't know who exactly decided on the value in U.S. dollars of the life of a 16 year-old Afghan girl, slaughtered while carrying a bundle of grass to her family farmhouse, or on the basis of what formula for pricing life the decision was made.
Despite the relatively small amounts paid out in Iraq, we do know that total official payments for wrongful deaths, as well as for injury and collateral property damage, caused by American troops, total at least $32 million, according to Editor & Publisher's Mitchell -- and that figure is considered low because similar payments are made unofficially "at a unit commander's discretion."
We also know something about how the U.S. government evaluated the wroth of the lives of slaughtered American innocents after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The family or spouse of a loved one murdered that day was also given a monetary value -- $1.8 million, on average from the September 11th Compensation fund, created by an act of Congress and signed into law by the president 13 days after the attacks.
So there we have it. In the modern version of "child slaughter," the U.S. government has indeed offered the world an evaluation of what price slaughter should exact in the deaths of innocents everywhere:
The value of a civilian slaughtered by al Qaeda terrorists on Sept. 11: $1.8 million.
The value of a civilian slaughtered at Haditha, Iraq, by U.S. Marines: $2,500.
The value of a civilian slaughtered by U.S. Marines near Jalalabad, Afghanistan: $2,000.
Never say that the U.S. government is incapable of putting a price on the deaths of innocents.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.