The Value of A Human Life

Are all human beings equal?

The principles of goodness would have us believe that all human lives are equal. It is axiomatic in legal systems of many territories around the world to assume individual equality. Social banter on this topic nearly always achieves a fashionable Consensus of the Affirmatives.

However, a tentative scratching of the surface of feel-good-factor consensus illuminates something disquieting. Lives, unfortunately, are not valued equally. Man has done a pretty good job of destroying himself through history, sometimes to self-made disasters (mass murders, genocides etc.) and at other times to the wrath of nature (earthquake, tsunami, natural calamities). Some events, however, are more visible than others, some more vividly remembered than others. Lives lost in the more visible ones somehow become more valuable than lives lost in oblivion.

Man-made disasters, first. Of all the despicable acts of mass murder known to man, the Holocaust figures very highly. With approximately 6 million massacred over a decade, the Holocaust is one of the episodes most vividly etched in human memories (it is safe to consider casualty estimates with a pinch of salt. The released numbers are almost always on the lower side). Grim reminders of this morbid incident lead to an outpouring of emotions even to this day.

Mid-19th century China went through a 25-year period of conflict which witnessed the loss of over 75 million lives. That’s a 3 million average per year, over 25 long years. That’s equivalent to a country about the size of Kuwait (3 million population) being wiped off every year for 25 years. But most are unaware of this annihilation. The Vietnam War resulted in over 3 million Vietnamese casualties. 9/11 killed 3,000 people but is unarguably the most vivid and most condemned tragedy in recent history. Operation Searchlight in 1971 resulted in 26,000 dead (Pakistan’s account) and over 3 million dead (Bangladesh’s account). The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 left 800,000 journeying into the after-life. From recent history, Darfur had casualties touching 500,000. In general, people know less about these incidents than others.

The British Petroleum oil spill last year killed 11 people and was one of the most extensively followed events in 2010. 30 miners perished in a blast in a New Zealand coal mine in late-2010 but this event got a fraction of the visibility bestowed on the BP oil spill. Chernobyl killed a million (estimates vary greatly) but is remembered with shudders even today. About 2 million succumb to AIDS annually but somehow, this is too ubiquitous to stir mind-space. The longer duration after-effects in both cases are severe but one event garners more sympathy than the other.

Turning next to natural disasters. The 2010 Haiti Earthquake, quite literally, led to a mass cave-in that swallowed 320,000 people. Widely covered by the media, the calamity led to an explosion of sympathy (rightfully). The 2004 Tsunami enveloped 230,000 people in various countries…

The list could go on and on.

Our reaction to events is significantly dependent on what (and how much) we know about them. And the manner in which the information reaches us. Some incidents pale in severity to others, even when the quantum of lives lost often differ greatly. Short-term memory, however, is relatively unimportant here. The Holocaust (1930s/40s) is more vividly remembered than the recent genocides in Darfur and Rwanda. Some episodes are more etched in memory than others.

Media scrutiny plays a pivotal role in colouring views by disseminating message content selectively. That’s old wine but is often forgotten in the context of determining the value of a life. Mass opinions get coloured by definitions and assumptions that frequently morph into axioms somewhere down the line in human psyche. We abhor the Holocaust but very few remember 19th century China. The loss of lives in the BP oil spill seems graver than the New Zealand mine blast, whereas these episodes should ideally evoke the same amount of sympathy.

The selected examples above also highlight something about human nature. Burst-tragedies (high severity events over brief periods) generally attract more attention than prolonged calamities. Although, often, it is the latter that claims more lives.

As the UN tightens the noose around Libya, many applaud the decisiveness of global intervention. Some even see it as redemption for global inaction in the cases of Rwanda and Darfur. Increased visibility has its benefits in stirring people to action. A life lost in Libya away from the world’s gaze is someway less valuable than a life lost in a visible Libya.

A life is a life, ought to be a life. But, is that the case?