Category Archives: Value of A Human Life

The Giving Trees

With acknowledgement to author Shel Silverstein who gave us the classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, I use the title here to consider two “giving trees” which are  reaching an end of sharing their extraordinary gifts.  And while my musings here are premature- neither of the two are yet completely gone- I cannot help but reflect on their importance, their meaning and their impacts, not only upon me, but on the world in which live.

Northeastern Iowa, where I live, is home to many emblems of rugged survival.  The high river bluffs of the driftless region, the forest cover overlaying the limestone beds of ancient geologic formation, and the burr oak trees of those woodlands, all stand as watchmen against the march of time and evolution.  The oaks, in particular, with their gnarly limbs and diminutive acorns, are omnipresent here,  bookmarks of an earlier age, a time before settlements and agriculture and highways.  I have come to deeply admire them, for both their arboreal beauty as well as their symbolism of a time that was somehow better.

The oak at the north end of the college campus here has enjoyed its own history and prominence.  It has graced a hillside there since the very earliest days of the school, likely gaining no notice in its fledgling years as first a shoot and then little more than a sapling.  But as the burr oaks are wont to do, it  survived.  It  stood by as settlers migrated to this area to farm and as educators traveled here to teach and preach.  It withstood the winds and the winters of the Oneota Valley, and the inexorable march of settlement and development of the territory.  It became a visible boundary of the college, a sentinel to the people and histories that emerged from that place.  And it continued to grow.

Over time, the oak commanded attention, as an imposing tower at the north end.  A  building was built in its shadow.  A road passed under its limbs.  Students sat beneath it, considering the deepest questions of  our lives, while contemplating the directions of their own.   In more recent years, an entire native grass savannah and rain garden became cultivated around it, to show it off, call attention to its prairie heritage and to reclaim a piece of what once was: a prairie oak savannah.  It steadied us, was a visual touchstone to certainty and continuity, and embodied a needed constancy.

Last year, in the bloom of Spring, nearly half of the burr oak failed to leaf out.  Arborists attempted some treatments, but with no effect.  The tree was reaching the end of its service and accompaniment.  Last week, the tree was taken down.

There remains a wide space in the savannah where the tree’s umbrella once shielded deer and fox, birds and learners alike.  A stump remains for now, chronicling the 125 year life of what was a fixture of the prairie.  For now, I can still walk to the base and sit upon what remains.  The world may not notice its absence.  But I do.

Concurrent with the loss of a great tree is the impending departure of a colleague in Nicaragua.  Ligia Gutierrez will end her consulting role with Winds of Peace Foundation in March, not so much in retirement as in opening herself to the next possibilities in a world which she has so richly served already.

Ligia has served as consultant for Winds of Peace, particularly with regard to the circumstances of the Indigenous people of Nicaragua, as well as working with women’s groups in helping them to discover their collective and individual voices.  To state here that she will be missed is an absurdity, because it does not begin to tell the story of this remarkable individual.

She is a child of the revolution, a committed and activist member of the Sandinista vision of a country free of the dictatorship and inequality that had fouled the country’s circumstances for generations.  She is a psychologist by training, a philosopher in practice, a teacher of holistic and cooperative living that extends far beyond social norms and legal statutes.  Her work is defined by the closeness of the relationships she creates: she is a mother to the youth, an intimate friend to the women, a friendly-but-persistent agitator within a still-machismo culture, a persistent prospector for equal rights and respect, both within the law and within the heart.  For me personally, she has been a Nica mentor, providing context and perspective that has helped me better understand the history and culture in which the Foundation works.  She is a student of physical and spiritual health.  She is a friend.

Ligia is also the source of one of my greatest frustrations in my Nica experiences: I have never been able to speak with her without the voice of a translator.  We have never been able to exchange thoughts and ideas directly with one another, thereby greatly reducing the interactions which might have educated me in untold ways.  My regret over this is a palpable wound that does not heal.

Like the burr oak on the prairie, Ligia has given of herself over a lifetime of service to ideas and others beyond herself.  Though small in physical stature, she is a powerhouse.  She is one of those rare individuals of the universe, seeing both the complexity and the beauty of the whole and striving to manifest it.  That personality, that persona, is what draws the rest of us toward her, for our own sakes.

And like the burr oak, the seeds which she has planted- ideas, self-regard, respect, justice- will far outlive her active service.  Hers is a testament that branches across generations and shelters the hopes of those in need of wisdom and  love.  And like a strong oak suddenly gone, her absence will leave both a gaping space and a magnificent legacy.

The removal of the burr oak tree did not elicit notice even in the local newspaper.  Ligia’s retirement will not be the stuff of international news or perhaps even local notice.  Their respective “graduations” are but the latest examples of the ongoing stream of life.  But they are to be missed.  The beauty, the lessons, the lives that they modeled are gifts for which I will be always grateful….

 

 

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….

The $2 Bill

I spoke before a college social work class last week.  The theme of the discussion was the impact of public policy on the lives of not only U.S. citizens, but also on residents of other countries.   I appreciate sharing the Winds of Peace experience with young people for several reasons: they universally exhibit an interest, they represent the best opportunity for future impact and I can usually recognize “lights turning on” in the face of dramatic stories and photographs that are shared.  What more could a speaker ask?

In this particular class, I tried something new to make a point.  Since the class size was only 15, I decided to distribute brand new $2 bills to each person.  (Thank goodness the class was not immense in size- I might have been forced to reconsider this strategy altogether.) Initially it may have seemed as though I sought to pay the students for their attention and interest, but not even I am desperate (or wealthy) enough to stoop to such a tactic.  Instead, as I explained, the $2 bill was theirs to keep and to reflect upon.  For there are many  for whom that $2 represent an entire day’s wages.                          unnamedThe $2-a-day threshold has been widely referenced when talking about global impoverishment.  Unfortunately, it has been recited often enough that the notion no longer seems to stir the incredulity that it once did; it has become a sad and interesting statistic with less “punch” than it had when we first heard of it.  I wanted the $2 bill to change that, by providing a unique (we don’t see many such bills in circulation anymore) and tangible ($2 in the hand is worth more than words) representation of just how little that amount is.  Then we went on about how some of our own consumption habits influence this state of affairs.

The first reaction of the students was bemusement; perhaps not many guest presenters have left money behind.  But once the bills were in hand, I invited them to consider how their money should be spent, given the realities of everyday needs.  To complicate their deliberations, I also suggested that their dilemma might be even more difficult in real life with the presence of a child or two; the $2 bill is still worth only $2.  There are not many Starbucks coffees to be consumed in that scenario.

When I have spoken about Nicaraguan poverty in the past, some have questioned whether goods are considerably less expensive in Nicaragua than in the U.S.  But by offering a comparison of some common grocery and clothing items in each country, that myth was quickly dispelled in class.  There are no “easy outs” or solutions for this reality.  The fact is that $2 does not come anywhere close to meeting basic living needs, and it’s emotionally disturbing to come face to face with that.   If the students keep the $2 bills for the uniqueness of the denomination, maybe they will also retain the empty feeling they experienced as they contemplated a life of deprivation.

I don’t have enough $2 bills to give away to everyone.  (Do we really need them?)  I can nevertheless invite people to use their own resources to consider what life might be like on $2 a day.  The exercise quickly moves from thinking about which niceties we might be able to do without to a more difficult evaluation of which essentials would have to go.  The first part of the deliberation is vexingly entertaining; the second part is maddeningly impossible.

If the $2 exercise properly infects the students from last Tuesday’s class, they will be left with a virus which has a cure, albeit a difficult one. The treatment for the disparities between those with more than enough and those with less than enough is personal understanding, knowing in both head and heart that the gap exists.  If that treatment truly takes hold, we’ll know what to do next….

 

 

 

About Face

The news from Brussels recently has been horrifying and sad.  The ubiquitous photographs of both carnage and heroic acts have filled all forms of the media.  We are saturated with the wanton loss of innocent people, we are appalled at the disregard of human life exhibited by the bombers, and we experience a sense of defiance and strength in vowing justice for those who perished or were maimed.  As we enter a second week of questions, we are coming to terms with yet one more senseless act.

History is full of them, of course.  They are events which at their white-hot moments trigger the full range of our most intense emotions.  They are incidents about which we are inclined to say things like, “Never again” or “We will never forget.”  But we do.  The passage of time or the passing of the generations eventually relegate even the most searing instants to dulled history, to be analyzed instead of felt, assessed rather than cried over.  Perhaps that is a good thing about our species, that we cannot retain the rawness of the moment for very long.

Among the images from Brussels are photographs of the deceased. They appear to be common folk.  There were no kings or world leaders or super-wealthy among the dead; there rarely are when it comes to such events.  The faces are even familiar: they are largely a microcosm of European and Western cultures, an ethnic mix of men and women, young and old, people we might meet on the street or in our neighborhoods.  They are reminiscent of you and me.  Everyman/Woman.  News organizations have come to use the individual photograph as a means of making the event more real to us, trying to personalize an event that otherwise might be too remote to elicit the drama and emotion of an important story.  I appreciate the use of photos, but I wish there would be more of it.

For there are other faces in the news over recent weeks and months and years that we have not seen. They are the countenances of other victims from places that are less familiar to you and me.  Places like Syria and Pakistan and Iraq and other locations.  Bombings and deaths have occurred in these places, too, often without provocation or design, other than the obliteration of whatever sense of civility may exist within our nations.  The losses in these places are no less devastating than those we grieve in Brussels.

In particular, we have learned a great deal about the lives of the four U.S. victims in the Brussels attacks.  It’s appropriate that we have a final opportunity to know even slightly the fellow citizens who will no longer be among us, to catch a glimpse of the lives that are no longer available to solving the important challenges of humanity, to imagining what they might have brought to the world.  It is primarily through such reflection that we might begin to fully internalize the losses we have incurred, and thus the insanity of policies that use indiscriminate death and destruction as supposed solutions to conflict.  In Brussels, we have lost some thirty-five potential “pieces to the puzzle,” souls and creators who we will never regain.

Just like the seventy-  primarily women and children-  who were lost this past weekend in Pakistan.  Or the thirteen in Istanbul before that.  Or the eight in Jakarta.  Thirty in Burkina Faso.  Twenty-nine in Ankara.  And so on.  Perhaps these do not strike us as newsworthy, because there were so many, or the events were so far away, or because there were no U.S. or European victims.  We can be myopic at times, in the same way that we did not acknowledge the destruction of life in Nicaragua during the years of the U.S.-backed Contras.  (Still don’t know about that one?)    The places are easy for us to overlook.

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But of course, they shouldn’t be.  For within every statistic mentioned above, there was a face and a story, a hope and purpose, a gift and a potential.  When we are afforded the chance to see the beautiful and happy faces of people who died in Brussels, remember, too, the losses which continue to degrade all of us from all corners of the world….