This Is Not a Society That Values Human Life

What are we made of?

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This Is Not a Society That Values Human Life

This is not a society that values human life. There was a shooting in Las Vegas, near Mandalay Bay Resort. Over fifty people were killed, and over four hundred people were injured. The gunman had ten-plus rifles.

It is the deadliest shooting in modern America history. For now. There will be another one. We won’t do anything to prevent it. We didn’t do anything to prevent this one. It will happen again. We all know it.

If our politicians didn’t care enough to stop it when twenty children were shot in Sandy Hook, they won’t care enough now.

If Congress didn’t care when it was hunted by a gunman back in June—when their own bodies were targeted—it won’t care now.

What we say and what we do exist in two separate universes. For example, we say we love the troops, and then we send them to war without body armor. When they come home, we cheat them of medical care and drop them in poverty.

This is how we treat human life.

On a personal level, human life is as important as it has always been. Human beings care about the lives of other human beings. That has not changed, nor will it ever change. Reports from the concert have ordinary people helping their fellows. You could hardly expect anything else.

But on the larger, mass level, life is irrelevant to the American government, and the institutions that shape our society. When does this society value human life? How could you tell the difference between our society, and a society that doesn’t care? When African-American men and women are killed by the police, does it matter then? When millions of American lives are at risk in Puerto Rico, does it matter then? When we invade other countries, does it matter then? When we let millions of people get sick and die for the benefit of a few people, does it matter then? How about when we help the Saudis drop bombs on Yemen? Does it matter then? The President keeps referring to nuking North Korea. Millions of lives. Does it matter then?

That’s what makes the U.S. special. Our power and wealth. See, every government has to make choices about what matters. Every government makes utilitarian decisions, based on cold calculation about priorities: whether to send soldiers to this location, whether to pass this speed limit that will prevent this many deaths on the highway. Every government has its hands dirty.

But America is unique. Imperial powers always are. Imperial powers don’t make the utilitarian decisions that lesser powers do, that ordinary states do. Imperial powers are as different from ordinary states as the rich are from the poor. Ordinary states are driven by the usual concerns about their own security and their household; they’re trying to get by.

Imperial powers are driven by power and profit. Their decisions effect everyone, and so their decisions are not merely about the preservation of one state or one government. An empire is a great machine, and the decisions about that machine involve the efficient extraction of profit and power. Those decisions do not care about human life. Abroad, that means indifference to whom we bomb or invade. And at home, that means doing nothing unless it threatens the government itself, or the people who buy the government. Heather Heyer died on August 12. Doesn’t that seem like a year ago? That’s how fast and furious these days are.

That is why gunmen will keep shooting us, and Congress will do nothing. Thoughts and prayers will be offered. And little else. We have accepted this as par for the course. Our society tells itself, “This is a totally normal thing that happens.” Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers. It will be wrapped up a lump of “senseless violence” or “tragedy today” or “terrorism.” We will proceed as if nothing has happened, and as if nothing could ever be changed. As if it was it was an act of God, and not our own doing.

Or, perhaps, our society has decided that it’s more important that Korea be scared, and that civilians can play soldier, and that the maximum profit be extracted. Perhaps that is what is important to us.

Even if it isn’t, how could you tell otherwise?

This is not a society that values human life.

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