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July 22nd, 2006
Sat, Jul. 22nd, 2006 11:27 am

"Man Equals Man" is the title of a play by Bertolt Brecht. It's a familiar idea -- that one human life is just as valuable as another one. It's not just the fundamental idea behind communist and socialist thinking, but the idea famously expressed in the American Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Of course, "created equal" or "equal before the law" does imply a more meritocratic view of equality; it's only equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. It's possible to imagine (actually, we don't have to strain that hard) a highly unequal society which still believed that all its members had at least been born equal.

The idea of the equivalence of human lives is also present in, for instance, the speeches of Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN. When he received the Nobel Prize, Annan made a speech to the Swedish Academy entitled "We can love what we are without hating what -- and who -- we are not".

"In the twenty-first century I believe the mission of the United Nations will be defined by a new, more profound, awareness of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, regardless of race or religion," Annan declared. "What begins with the failure to uphold the dignity of one life, all too often ends with a calamity for entire nations."

It would be easy to assume we were all basically on the same page with Kofi Annan on this question; that one human life equals another, that man equals man. At least in theory, at the level of universal principles. In practice, just about any of us would respond differently to the killing of a family member than the killing of someone in a faraway country, someone we didn't know anything about. Man, at that level of "situation", would not equal man at all. We'd feel that our family member's life was worth at least 1000 times more than the life of some foreign stranger. The difference between a philosophy of equality and a philosophy of inequality would seem largely to be one of situation. Or perhaps a question of strong emotions overcoming rational judgements.

This week the word "proportionate" has been in the news a lot. Figures from Putin to Bill Clinton have condemned Israel's "disproportionate" use of force against Lebanon and Gaza. As Putin put it, Israel of course has the right to defend itself, but its response should be proportionate.

The ratios are interesting. As Mary Ann Sieghart pointed out in yesterday's Times, the ratio of Lebanese to Israeli deaths in the current conflict has been a fairly consistent 10:1. "There were 80 such raids in the early hours of yesterday alone. By late afternoon, some 327 civilians had died in Lebanon, compared with 34 Israelis." In the Gaza conflict, it's 100:1: "Since Israel began its hostilities there, three weeks ago, some 110 Palestinians have lost their lives and countless more have been injured, while just one Israeli has died."

"If this is a proportionate response," says Sieghart, "I’m a satsuma."

So do the Israelis believe that a Palestinian life is worth 100th of an Israeli one? Do they believe that one Lebanese life is worth just a tenth of one Israeli one? This would be narcissism of an incredibly overblown order, family feeling blown up to national level.

One account I read of why Israel responds so extremely to, for instance, the kidnapping of two of its soldiers did, in fact, invoke the idea of family feeling; since all Israelis serve, at some point, in the IDF, it said, a soldier could be anyone's son or daughter. The state responds not in a detached, rational way, but like a crazed parent. There are also many family ties between Israel and the US (many of the vox pop interviews on the streets of Haifa have seemed to be interviews with Americans), which means that the US responds to Israel in this same irrational, situated, "they're family" way. In other words, they buy into the narcissism, the idea that one Israeli life really is worth 10 Lebanese ones, or 100 Palestinian ones.

To some extent, Muslims in the Middle East work by the same logic. That's why, for instance, they blow themselves up as suicide bombers, whereas Israelis never do. One human life, when you're poor and living in conditions of utter misery, really isn't worth the same as a human life living in adequate conditions. So much for "man equals man"; it seems that neither side believes that to be the case, although one side may want it to be.

The American right, meanwhile, is happily poo-pooing the whole idea of a proportionate response. "Americans believe in Colin Powell's doctrine, which holds that "America should enter fights with every bit of force available or not at all"," wrote Dr Mitchell Bard of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. "The United States uses overwhelming force against its enemies, even though the threats are distant and pose no danger to the existence of the nation or the immediate security of its citizens." (Right above this article rejecting the whole concept of proportionality there's an ad announcing "The Coming World War: Find out what Nostradamus says about the years 2007 - 2012.")

The "shock and awe" attitude seen here may seem unbalanced -- in fact, totally unhinged -- but attempts are made to balance it by invoking the Holocaust. "What are the Israelis supposed to do? Wait for a repeat of Hitler's death camps?" screams right wing chat show host Mark Levin. "Never again! Never again!" The Holocaust, apparently, justifies anything the Israelis might want to do to anyone, forever. Hitler, somewhere, is having the last laugh.

The defense of non-proportionate responses isn't confined to the Nostradamian right, though. One Republican senator demanded to know "Whoever said a response to the murder of loved ones should be proportionate?" And Tony Blair has incurred the wrath of many members of his own party by refusing to condemn the Israeli actions, despite the fact that even the Conservative leader David Cameron has.

So either the idea of proportionality is out the window -- and with it the most important idea in the American declaration of Independence, and behind the United Nations, the idea that man equals man -- or it's been temporarily suspended, along with other, related ideas like habeus corpus or the right to be innocent until proven guilty, because somebody is attacking members of our family.

But why is Israel "our family"? These little girls, so blithely signing missiles which will kill someone in Lebanon who -- apparently -- doesn't matter, are not relatives of mine. Why do our leaders support the Israeli state right or wrong? Sure, we don't elect families, we're born into our kinship with them, which remains indissoluble until we all die, and endures whatever bad things they do. Maybe, culturally, the Christian religion is what ties us to the Israelis. It's a tragic tie, all the more tragic since the parties to it don't even live by Christian principles; as Mary Ann Sieghart pointed out in The Times, "the 'eye for an eye' doctrine of the Old Testament was not a vengeful prescription but was designed precisely to restrict vengeance to that which was proportionate. The verse did not ordain ten eyes for one eye, which is the ratio the Israelis are currently pursuing." (Some of us prefer the New Testament anyway: turn the other cheek. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.)

I want to end with another quote from Kofi Annan's Nobel lecture, "We can love what we are without hating what -- and who -- we are not". It's about how we ought to hold onto the idea of nurturing equality -- that elusive 1:1 ratio -- because without it we're lost:

"Today, in Afghanistan, a girl will be born. Her mother will hold her and feed her, comfort her and care for her just as any mother would anywhere in the world. In these most basic acts of human nature, humanity knows no divisions. But to be born a girl in today’s Afghanistan is to begin life centuries away from the prosperity that one small part of humanity has achieved. It is to live under conditions that many of us in this hall would consider inhuman. Truly, it is as if it were a tale of two planets.

"I speak of a girl in Afghanistan, but I might equally well have mentioned a baby boy or girl in Sierra Leone. No one today is unaware of this divide between the world’s rich and poor. No one today can claim ignorance of the cost that this divide imposes on the poor and dispossessed who are no less deserving of human dignity, fundamental freedoms, security, food and education than any of us. The cost, however, is not borne by them alone. Ultimately, it is borne by all of us –- North and South, rich and poor, men and women of all races and religions."

Annan was too diplomatic to say it, but he could even more tellingly have contrasted the life of an Israeli with the life of a Palestinian just a few metres away. Nowhere are the "two planets" squeezed more closely together than in the tight, tense grid of today's Middle East, and nowhere do we more need the ideas of equality and proportionality. The ratio we need to aim for is 1:1. Man equals man. My family is everybody.

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