The value of human life…

It seems I’m on an ethics and actions binge; all my currently planned posts (I’ve normally got about five drafts ready at any time) appear to have a human rights theme, but I’d actually planned to write this blog about six months ago. You might remember (from press stories at the time) that late last year, a woman made her way past security at the American White House and was subsequently “neutralised”. I’m not kidding – that was the actual word used in the White House press release and repeated by the press. Of course, by neutralised, they really meant murdered, but hey, murder is such an ugly word.

Police Officer Carrying Nightstick

Apparently, she had some mental health issues, and carried no weapons, but her transgression meant that White House security were fully ‘entitled’ to murder her, without any repercussions. No real attempt was made to subdue her without resorting to extreme violence, and her rights, including a fair trial for her crime (trespass mind you, nothing else could be inferred without some seriously screwed up thinking) were ignored entirely. The miniscule threat she posed to the president was considered sufficient grounds for this sort of horrific action.

It seems that, for a supposedly civilised society we’ve really fucked it up when it comes to valuing human life. In America and Australia (and, of course, many other countries), police have the power to kill another human being for a suspected transgression or even a petty crime (if there’s sufficient reason to assume that person poses a threat). This is despite the fact that, in the scheme of crime severity, murder is considered to be the worst, attracting a death penalty in some parts of the world. How is it that the state is able to justify regular murder to further its interests?

Well, it all comes down to spin and semantics. The mass civilian casualties inflicted by governments during wartime are easily justified by the rhetoric of freedom and liberty. Even if this killing involves insidious murder devices, such as unmanned drones, the powers that be are happy to use terms like “acceptable civilian casualties”, because with enough spin any means can justify the ends. Thus the state becomes an instrument of fear and violence.

At a more local level, I’ve often wondered about the need for police to carry guns (here in Australia for example). In the UK and New Zealand, regular police don’t carry firearms and are, therefore, trained to defuse potentially difficult situations without shooting people (although, sadly, the American disease seems to have affected these police forces recently too, as they now have armed units). If a police force exists to keep the law and protect a country’s citizens, then they simply don’t have the right to kill people on suspicion (something that flies directly in the face of the Westminster legal system). Do the police have a right to defend themselves in the course of defending us. Of course they do, and they should be armed appropriately in order to defend themselves if attacked. Stab vests, a truncheon, and maybe capsicum spray or a taser, are probably appropriate. But they should not be given access to weapons that can kill. This is especially important in the light of the fact that police forces are not mass entities; they are comprised of individuals, many of whom are horrified at the thought that they might be required to kill another human being. The psychological impact of killing another, even “in the line of duty” is immense – and inevitable when police officers are given the means to kill, and denied adequate training in alternate methods of defense.

Last week I wrote about not standing by and accepting things as they stand. My question this week is, can we accept a state that kills with impunity and then tells us it was for our own good? Even worse, can they then preach to us about the sanctity of human life in order to protect us from ourselves? The same state that allows its police forces to murder citizens, also takes a cavalier attitude to the value of my life, and will quote psuedo-religious ‘morals’ to deny me the right to die if I have a chronic disease or am hooked up to a machine. You see, it’s ‘wrong’ to take a life unless that life is a potential interference – then it’s probably OK.

The anti-abortion lobby and anti-euthanasia groups like to use the same, tired, moralistic arguments. They simplify complex arguments to a “good/bad” recipe, and refuse to acknowledge that life is actually about quality and not quantity. But when it comes to these groups of cranks, its relatively easy to laugh them off – they’re usually a sad bunch of not very smart fanatics with big mouths (ooh, did that sound condescending?). But when a government starts to use the same arguments to ‘protect’ us from ourselves – then I start to take issue. A state that legitimises murder to further its aims, but then passes restrictive, pseudo-moralistic laws to outlaw abortion or euthanasia (and in the process, tells us that these things are ‘bad’), loses all credibility. Or at least it should, (and I’m not sure if it’s just me) but I don’t see a lot of people getting upset about this.

What is the value of human life? That’s far too big a question for a little blog, especially in a world groaning under the weight of overpopulation. But it’s a question that needs to be considered in forums a lot wider and larger than this one. It’s a question that needs to be taken up, stripped of religiosity and bigotry, and studied intensively. It’s a question for governments to act on, not with knee-jerk policy or spin, but with investigation, enquiry, impartiality and, above all, from an ethical (as opposed to moral) stance.

In my next post (with some assistance from my awesome wife, who’s currently studying ethics), I plan to write about ethics and its application to human wellbeing. It’ll be a lot harder to write than this (somewhat ranty) post, but I’m looking forward to it – I hope you’ll let me know what you think.

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