Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Valuing Life
distributed 4/4/03 - ©2003

I guess war reporters are not bound by the courtroom oath, "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."

I'm referring to the consistent reporting from Iraq that says something like, "in this day of heavy fighting, 3 soldiers were killed." That means, of course, that three of "our" soldiers were killed.

Some numbers are emerging about civilian casualties, but the count of dead and wounded among the Iraqi military seems to be the most closely guarded secret of the war. The government of Iraq doesn't want to talk about it, and US sources -- both governmental and in the media -- don't seem to want to reveal the scope of the carnage, either.

I did hear one report on the radio that referred to "thousands" of bodies lying along a highway. I can only assume that many thousands more Iraqi soldiers have died in the intense bombing, shelling, and ground combat of these last two weeks.

The contemporary standards for war reporting say that it is not "acceptable" to show pictures of bodies to the American public. And so we have a war that seems ever so tidy. Our "smart bombs" destroy buildings and munitions, and our battles "disable" whole divisions of troops, but mass death never really seems to intrude. Instead, in language and imagery, some TV networks are hyping this war in the same style as a big sporting event -- exciting and good for ratings, especially since we're sure that our side will win.

The painful truth about war is being concealed. Wars are won primarily by killing lots of other people. When we don't see the bodies, when we don't hear the count of Iraqi dead, then it becomes so much easier to accept war as an acceptable strategy. When our sense of the war's progress comes from maps, and from journalists embedded with "our" troops, we don't feel the full horror of war. We don't encounter the fear and anguish, the pain and hunger and thirst, the death and destruction that is found on the other side of the lines.

There is a very clear moral danger when we look only at the needs and experience of "our side," and devalue what is happening to "the other side."

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The recent war reports show attitudes about "the enemy" and about war in general that are morally disturbing. It is even more disturbing to see the same sort of moral distortions infused into our domestic life.

  • One of the selling points for Sport Utility Vehicles is their alleged safety. But the safety of SUV occupants in some types of crashes comes at a high price of others involved in a collision. As Keith Bradsher reports in his new book on SUVs, "for each (Ford) Explorer driver whose life is saved in a two-vehicle collision by choosing an Explorer instead of a large car, an extra five drivers are killed in vehicles struck by Explorers." For many SUV drivers, "my" life and safety is worth more than "their" lives.

  • The White House is pushing federal agencies to cut the dollar value they place on a human life when determining the costs and benefits of policy changes, such as curbing emissions from power plants. The U.S. EPA generally bases its calculations on a value of $6.1 million per human life, but the administration argues that the lives of old or sick people should be valued at considerably less -- in one recent assessment, as low as $96,000. This sort of shift could benefit industry while leading to weaker public health protections on everything from toxic-waste cleanup to food labeling. (Grist Magazine, 3/17/03)

  • In the question that is at the heart of almost all environmental debates, the value of "our" human needs are placed against the needs of other parts of the Creation. In a parallel to war reporting, when we don't hear about the losses suffered by "the other side" it becomes much easier to ignore the effects of our destructive actions.
Walt Grazer of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaking about the EPA calculations, said: "In general, if you're valuing one life over another, we've got lots of problems here." Jesus said: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me."

Faithful Christian ethics do not condone the dismissing of life. Not because those people are our enemies in a war. Not because the people in my car seem more important than some strangers. Not because they are old and sick. And, when an eco-justice perspective calls us to stretch our moral boundaries, not when that life isn't human life.

It is, of course, so much easier when we can care only about those who are like us and those who are close to us. Our emotions are less stressed when we don't think about strangers.

But our faith often does not call us to the easy places. It calls us into the midst of the very real pain and suffering of the world. When we encounter that world -- all of that world -- with love and compassion, we are transformed, and we are inspired to work for the transformation of the world.

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Just last week, I wrote that the US Senate reflected the ethical principles of inherent worth by voting to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the ravages of oil drilling -- at least for another year. But now the US House is putting ANWR back on the legislative agenda. Let your representative know where you stand in balancing "our" needs for oil against the needs of future generations, and of the rights of the Refuge!


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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