The sign of a civilized society is the sanctity it accords human life. According to the Talmud, “To save one life is like saving the world.” You needn’t be religious to live by this maxim. You must, however, be observant of the most precious thing on earth: the life of an innocent human being. As I see it, our government’s only legitimate function is to protect American lives – one by precious one. Wholly illegitimate is the devising of messianic ideologies and imperious schemes.
Tellingly, the neoconservatives at National Review have grumbled about Israel’s "lopsided prisoner exchanges" over the years. One "sofa samurai," Eric Leskly, notes the startling disparity of exchanging 5,500 Egyptian soldiers, following the Sinai campaign of 1956, "for the lives of the four Israeli soldiers captured in the fighting," and over 8,000 Egyptians, after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in exchange for 240 Israeli soldiers.
This may sound chauvinistic, but when nations are consumed with safekeeping their own, by default (and in self interest), they are more careful with the lives of their enemies.
Its official policy notwithstanding, Israel has also negotiated with terrorists for the lives and bodies of its soldiers. As Dr. Boaz Ganor, executive director of the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told the Jerusalem Post: "Israeli governments are more prone to the influence of public opinion." I’d say! The other day, I watched demonstrators heckle Sharon after yet another suicide bombing. One man yelled, "If you don’t sort this mess out, I’ll personally pay you a visit."
I grew up in Israel and lived through the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars. As a recent arrival to the U.S. via Canada, I expected Americans to be as preoccupied with preserving American lives as Israelis are with Jewish lives, especially once the beheadings began. The fuss so many Americans make over fetuses had certainly led me to imagine that the nation would, at the very least, demonstrate the same reverence for fully formed people.
I was wrong.
One of the most disgraceful displays of indifference to the sanctity of American life in Iraq occurred when insurgents captured Private First Class Keith Maupin in April. I had counted on being flooded with Breaking News about our military’s tireless efforts to retrieve him.
I was wrong.
I became obsessed with Maupin’s helpless young face. I couldn’t stop thinking about how frightened he must have been once he realized no one was bargaining for his life or coming to rescue him. In vain I turned to television and the Internet for news of him. But the media, taking its cues from the Bushies and the American people, let the leads grow cold. The next I heard, Maupin had been executed by his captors. This was in late June.
Since then, bloodletting barbarians have sawed off the heads of Paul Johnson, Nick Berg, a Turkish truck driver (Durmus Kumdereli), two Bulgarian truckers (Georgi Lazov and Ivaylo Kepov), a South Korean interpreter (Kim Sun Il), and the American engineers, Jack Hensley and Eugene Armstrong. The life of Englishman Kenneth Bigley now hangs by a thread.
I am still haunted by Kim’s televised plea: "Please get out of here [Iraq]. I do not want to die; I do not want to die. I want to live. My life is important." In the end – Kim’s end – South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun proved more sensitive to American power than to the life of his own countryman. Still, even South Korea now scores higher than America and Britain on my reverence-for-life scale. Korea’s taste for dog meat is a trifle compared to the pagan indifference to human life Bush and Blair have revealed in Iraq. When Kim was captured, thousands of Koreans flooded the streets, demanding their government save his life by not deploying soldiers to Iraq. If nothing else, President Roh did Citizen Kim the "honor" of convening an emergency task force to conclude that nothing could be done, which is a lot more than our government did for poor Paul Johnson, Nick Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong.
As President Bush sat bone idle, never lifting a bloodstained finger to haggle for his countrymen, the Egyptian government joined with a holding company called Orascom to try and free six of its citizens. Italy, like Korea a member of the coalition of the willing, did what needed to be done to save the lives of two kidnapped female aid workers. Premier Silvio Berlusconi authorized the Italian secret service to conduct as many as "16 different negotiations," with the result that the "two Simonas" (Pari and Torretta) and other hostages were freed.
Although her American and British "allies" condemned her, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo chose to spare rather than squander the life of hostage Angelo dela Cruz. "I cannot apologize for being a protector of my people,” she said. Clearly, President Arroyo feared defying the will of the Philippine people. Why did President Bush suffer no such fear? Why did the American people not rally to demand the safe return of Jack Armstrong and Eugene Hensley?
The English people, in Kenneth Bigley’s hometown of Liverpool and elsewhere, demand that Tony Blair do something to prevent his death. Bigley’s televised anguish has mortified a nation and threatened Blair’s government. Yet in Armstrong’s hometown and elsewhere in America, most people parroted Bush’s posturing: "The only thing they can do is behead people and try and shake our will." Even before Armstrong was headless, he was faceless to Bush and so many of his countrymen.
Eugene Hensley’s bereaved family prefers to believe that "the hostage takers always intended to kill the hostages." But the facts tell a different tale. No sooner have their demands been met than terrorists in Iraq have released their hostages. So the hostages can be saved. The question, however, remains: should we negotiate with terrorists?
The answer is: it depends. There are manifold complexities. Certainly matters are not as simple as Bush has led sacrificial lambs like the Hensley family to believe.
When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon released 430 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for three dead Israelis and one live one, people worried, and for good reason. Many of the prisoners were said to be very dangerous men. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin would probably have supported the Sharon swap. According to Dr. Ganor, Rabin said categorically that when military action to free hostages is not possible, "real negotiations should be held."
Abandoning hostages as this administration has done as a matter of "principle" is thus not an option, at least not an ethical one. President Bush bears the mark of Cain for looking on as Americans continue to be butchered. The American people are stained as well.
The argument that by negotiating with terrorists we may embolden them doesn’t bear a moment’s examination. How much bolder could these monsters get? What can Abu Musab al-Zarqawi do that he has not yet done? In Iraq, it is all the more essential to bargain for the lives of hostages who otherwise stand to meet the most ghastly fate imaginable.
Releasing "Dr. Germ" and "Mrs. Anthrax" in exchange for Bigley would be well worth it. After all, what threat do these women now present? All bets are that their lives will revolve around satisfying the lowest of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Saddam’s scientists will be too busy seeking shelter and sustenance to trek to Syria to bring back the chemical weapons Bill O’Reilly assures us are there so as to peddle them to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
George W. Bush has never so much as pronounced the names of the flesh and blood Americans beheaded in Iraq and Riyadh. Name names, Mr. President! At minimum, do what the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office does – keep a memorial of the dead and disfigured. All we need is a summary of each outrage, accompanied by a picture of the victim and a brief obituary.
If you can’t honor Americans in life, Mr. President, at least you can remember them in death.