Editors Note: This story originally appeared on TomDispatch.
What value has a human life?
We usually think of this in terms of sentiment–of memories, grief, love, longing, of everything, in short, that is too deep and valuable to put a price upon. Then again, is anything in our world truly priceless?
As anyone who has ever taken out a life insurance policy knows, we humans are quite capable of putting a price on life–and death. In her book Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana Zelizer reminds us that, starting in the 1870s in the United States, in that era before child labor laws, the business of insuring working-class children, who were then quite valuable to poor families, achieved enormous success. For a few pennies a week, ten dollars in all, you could, for instance, insure your 1-year-old against the future loss to the family of his or her earning power.
The courts weighed in, assessing the literal value of an earning child to a family. In those days, poor urban children died regularly in staggering numbers under horse’s hooves, the wheels of street cars, and trains. In an 1893 editorial, the New York Times referred to this as “child slaughter,” and juries reacted accordingly. When Ettie Pressman, just 7 years old, died under a team of horses in 1893, while crossing New York’s Ludlow Street with her 9-year-old sister, a court granted her father $1,000 to compensate him for “his daughter’s services and earnings.” (“Yes,” her father testified, with “what I earn and what the children earn used together we have enough. They earn three dollars each week.”)
This came to mind recently, thanks to a New York Times report on another kind of “child slaughter”–in this case by US Marines, who, in early March, went on a killing rampage near Jalalabad in Afghanistan. Sorry, in Pentagon parlance, this is referred to as “using excessive force.” A platoon of elite Marine Special Operations troops in a convoy of Humvees were ambushed by a suicide bomber in a mini-van and one of them was wounded. Initially, it was reported that as “many as 10 people were killed and 34 wounded as the convoy made a frenzied escape, and injured Afghans said the Americans fired on civilian cars and pedestrians as they sped away.” The Americans quickly blamed some of these casualties on “militant gunfire.” (“Lt. Col. David Accetta, the top US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said gunmen may have fired on US forces at multiple points during the escape.”)