Putting a Price on a Human Life

How much is one human life worth?

The answer, if you are an American inside the borders of our country, seems to be in the range of $6 million. The family of the 12-year-old shot by police in Cleveland, Tamir Rice, was awarded $6 million. That is comparable (plus-or-minus $500,000) to the awards offered to the families of other victims of police violence. So there seems to be a consensus that an American citizen's life, regardless of their status, is worth millions of dollars.

But if you are not a citizen of the United States, and not within the borders of our country, your life is evidently worth much less. If you were one of the people killed in a hospital in Kunduz by a bombardment from an AC-130 gunship, for example, your life is worth less -- a lot less. Specifically, your life has one-thousandth the value that Tamir's life had: $6000, to be exact. That is what the US Army is awarding to the families of the patients and Doctors Without Borders medical staff who were killed in Kunduz.

What accounts for the thousandfold difference? Clearly what makes one life a thousand times more valuable than other is not race or social status. Even though Tamir Rice was one of the most vulnerable members of our American society, a black child in the inner city, his family received for higher compensation than the highly trained European and Afghan physicians working for a prestigious international organization.

The difference is not because of the number of victims either. True, Tamir was a sole victim, while there were 42 victims in Kunduz. It would be a lot more expensive to give all of these victims' families $6 million. But that's not the reason for the difference in the value of a life. After all, for the price of one AC-130 gunship, each family could be given what Tamir's family received.

An important clue to why some lives are worth more than others was outlined in a letter that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to the New York Times a few years ago. He wrote in response to a front-page article entitled "A Court to Vet Kill Lists" that revealed that, before President Obama could approve the use of drones for the killing of suspected terrorists abroad, judicial review would be required if the targeted individual was an American citizen.

"Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world," asked the Nobel Peace Prize winner bluntly, "that our lives are not of the same value as yours?"

The answer, evidently, is "yes."

This is no secret to Abdul Samad, whose nephew was killed in the hospital. "I wish they [the soldiers involved] were in our country so that we could get them convicted according to our own laws," he said in a telephone interview. "Right now, they are 100 percent murderers and they should be treated as murderers in their own country."

But that is not going to happen. Kunduz is not Cleveland. Kunduz is in a country that few Americans can even find on a map.

Cleveland, by contrast, is located in a must-win state for candidates running for national office, and is the site of the upcoming Republican national convention.

That Tamir Rice's family received $6 million is an honorable decision. It's even understandable that the sports reporter Erin Andrews, who was videotaped nude through a peephole by stalker, received $55 million. (Evidently the violation of her privacy was worth almost ten times more than the taking of Tamir's life.) The problem is that, if Tamir or Erin were not Americans, their lives would be worth less. The way we value human life seems obscenely ethnocentric.

Of course some tough-minded military insiders will nevertheless argue that compensation in a war zone is different. They justify the deaths of innocents in Afghanistan or Iraq with the compelling argument that war is messy and we have to accept collateral damage.

May I remind those hard-headed warriors, however, what we Americans did after innocent civilians in America were killed at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. We launched a war that has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands, including the 42 victims in the hospital, and are engaged in a never-ending "war on terror" which continues to this day. If that's what we do after our innocents are killed, what do we think they will do when we repeatedly kill theirs?

In the spirit of genuine repentance, let us consider a modest first step. Let the Pentagon sell one AC-130 gunship, perhaps even the very one that fired those 200 shells for thirty minutes that devastated the hospital, and then distribute the money from the sale to the victims. Although no money can replace a life, at least it will show the citizens of the world that America's heart beats for them too.

Mark Gerzon is the author of American Citizens, Global Citizens, and more recently, The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.