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Iran's Protests and the Value of Human Life

"Who, more than self their country loved..."

By Will Offensicht  |  June 29, 2009

As politically incorrect as it may be to point it out, our society explicitly places different values on the lives of different people.  For example, our leaders have set up an extremely generous health plan which is open to legislators and federal employees.

It's significant that none of the politicians who are participating in the ongoing health care debate has suggested that we open up the federal plan to all citizens.  Why not?

The plain truth is that our government values the lives of government officials and employees far more than it values less exalted citizens' lives.  Too bad, but not particularly surprising.

Other Valuation Scales

The recent rioting in Iran over a stolen election gives us an opportunity to compare American theories about the value of human lives with the way other cultures look at the subject.  There seems to be a rough correlation between how empty a country seems and how lives are valued.  That is, if a country is not very crowded, the culture values individual lives, whereas the more crowded a country is, the less an individual human life is worth.

For example, China has always been extremely crowded by American standards and individual human lives have very little value.  Charles Woodruff, who wrote the book "Expansion of races," (Rebman company, 1909) put it thus on p 46:

We often wonder why the killing of Chinese soldiers was so quickly forgotten - it made no impression.  A million Chinese could be killed and the loss would not be felt in that sodden, gelatinous, inelastic mass - indeed the Empire would be benefited.

For thousands of years, the biggest issue in China was finding enough to eat.  If people were killed, their deaths made more food available for the rest.  Even today, the Chinese Olympic facilities ran up a casualty rate that would never be acceptable in America.

A country doesn't have to be crowded for people to place a low value on human life.  My wife, her sister, and I pulled into Kabul, Afghanistan in July 1973 just after the revolution which deposed Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan.  We saw a few tanks here and there in the streets and the odd bullet hole in the walls of the Post Office.  We had planned to spend a few days exploring the city, but that didn't seem to be a good idea just then; we found refuge in a small hotel in the outskirts.

The hotel owner's son knew some English; he regaled us with tales of watching the fighting.  "Weren't you worried that you might get killed?" my wife asked.

"No problem," he said, "one less mouth to feed."  He seemed to mean it, so my wife pressed a little.  "You're a big help to your dad in keeping the hotel."

"That's true, but I'm just a poor hotel keeper's son and I have lots of brothers and sisters.  If I were killed, my next brother would take over and everything would be OK."

We realized that he and we were simply not on the same page with respect to the value of human life.  We thought his life had intrinsic value for its own sake; he thought his life had no value because he was of such low status and had no real hope of advancement.

I value my life enough that I've not been back to Afghanistan since, so I have no idea happened to that young man; most likely, he died decades ago, while I'm still here to write about him.

Protest, Martyrdom, and Suicide Bombing

Americans have always reacted negatively to enemies who use suicide bombing against them.  The Japanese "kamikaze" (divine wind) pilots who crashed their airplanes into our ships caused serious morale problems.

Our military personnel didn't seem to mind risking their lives fighting against an enemy who was as afraid of death as they were, but it was unnerving to fight someone who not only wasn't worried about death, the person had sworn to die.  Kamikaze pilots weren't given enough gas to get home and their planes left the landing gear behind on the runway for the next plane to use; once they took off, they were going to die one way or another, either by crashing into a US ship or by drowning when their fuel ran out.

The Iranians protesting their nation's fraudulent election do not seem to be as concerned about their lives as Americans might be.  They're willing to go up against armed secret police.

Is this reflective of a Muslim ethos that dying for a cause you believe in validates its merit?  It certainly seems to inspire others' support - as Osama bin Laden has taken advantage of to everyone's harm, so the Iranian students may turn to their benefit.

The Time article "In Iran, One Woman's Death May Have Many Consequences" reports:

A gruesomely captivating video of a young woman - laid out on a Tehran street after apparently being shot, blood pouring from her mouth and then across her face - swept Twitter, Facebook and other websites this weekend.

For the cycles of mourning in Shiite Islam actually provide a schedule for political combat - a way to generate or revive momentum.  Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh and 40th days after a death, and these commemorations are a pivotal part of Iran's rich history.  During the revolution, the pattern of confrontations between the shah's security forces and the revolutionaries often played out in 40-day cycles.

"Neda" is already being hailed as a martyr, a second important concept in Shiism.  With the reported deaths of 19 people Saturday, martyrdom also provides a potent force that could further deepen public anger at Iran's regime.

The first Shiite martyr was Hussein, the prophet Mohammed's grandson.  He believed it was better to die fighting injustice than to live with injustice under what he believed was illegitimate rule.

Americans have voiced similar sentiments in the past - "Give me liberty or give me death" comes to mind - but would modern young Americans riot over a stolen election?  Judging from the underwhelming response to past election irregularities, we somehow doubt it.

Our traditional view of the relative values of life as compared to freedom is captured in the song America, which describes what used to be expected of Americans: "Who more than self their country loved, and duty more than life."  As a free people, Americans meant it when they sang that.  America's warriors believe it to this day, but the warrior ethos fills the veins of a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans these days.

Jefferson's call for the tree of liberty to be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants may not have much resonance in his own land anymore, but in Iran, the patriots appeared to be willing to providing the necessary fertilizer to grow their very own tree of liberty - at least for a while; more recent reports indicate that the violent repression is taking a toll.

The rebellion is tapering off and may come to a stop.  Supposedly, it was fueled by young people who have imbibed a desire for personal freedom; will it fail because they've also absorbed a modern Western sense of self-worth?

If enough Iranians truly value liberty more than they value their lives, however, the regime has a problem.  No tyrant gives up power voluntarily.

Getting rid of tyranny in favor of liberty requires a sufficient dose of tyrant's blood along with the blood of rebels.  Will, eventually, the Iranian tyrants supply their share of the required blood?  One can but hope for change in Iran.