Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Value of Life, a conversation

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The discussion’s roots are found here.


According to Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal Israel should swap prisoners held in Israeli jails for the return of the 19 year old Gilad Shalit - a young soldier captured during a deadly ambush of Israeli soldiers on Israeli soil.

According to the Hamas government such a swap would be nothing more than the application of natural logic.

Sensing that the Israeli government isn't capable of displaying such logic, they've reduced their demands from hundreds of prisoners to be released to dozens.

Egypt, with a keen eye on everyone saving face, has proposed instead that the Hamas militants holding Shalit should unilaterally release the lad and in return - no, strike that - totally independently and unilaterally, Israel should release some Palestinian prisoners. Egypt stresses, though, that this deal isn't a deal between the two sides.

Ultimately, I'd wager something like the Egyptian proposal will occur. On the one hand the factions of Hamas have acted with intense stupidity. They are in a no-win situation:

a) They have a prisoner that if they kill they will provoke a strong international reaction and further, a strong Israeli military reaction.

b) They aren't going to get the release of nearly as many prisoners as they bargained for - once as high as 1500 asked for.

c) Israel continues to use their military to dissect Gaza, killing a good number of militants and the occasional innocent bystander that those militants hide behind.

Israel, on the other hand, has made it clear they want out of Gaza ASAP and the only thing they want more is the return of their young lad.

So - I'm guessing we will see some kind of swap - but we won't call it that - and further some kind of ceasefire. I'm guessing that this ceasefire will be a "comprehensive" one. Something I think valuable to both sides - and a major step forward in the peace process.

In the days just before Shalit's capture, the governing wing of Hamas was set to sign an agreement with Fatah giving implicit, but not explicit recognition of Israel along with a ceasefire offer. This incident simply got in the way.

If I'm right, Israel's strategy has been very successful. They haven't appeared to be weak. They'll get their soldier back. They'll get the end of these crude missiles being fired by various Palestinian militants and they'll get a ceasefire agreement. Incidentally, Israel has provided electricity to parts of Gaza since knocking out a main generator a couple of weeks ago. The humanitarian crisis, so far, has been averted.

Hamas, on the other hand, looks fractured and out of touch. One gets the impression that the political wing in Gaza gets what politics is about, while the military guys, and our man Mashaal are more and more resembling the IRA thugs who haven't figured out the game is over yet and can't get out of their thug uniforms.

Well that's all fine and well.

There is, I think, a more interesting point - a point on the value of life.

What does it say about the Palestinian militants that they see it as a fair swap - 1500 (now much less) Palestinians for one Israeli?

The fact is, Israel has a history of such lopsided swaps with the Palestinians and other Arab nations. Do Israelis simply value their own more? Or is this a case of these militants devaluing their own?

You know, it's kind of insulting. If you were a Palestinian prisoner how would you feel at being valued at 1/1500 the value of one Israeli?

So you might point out to me that actually, these militants are being smart. They know the Israeli government "overvalues" their own citizens and are merely exploiting this fact.

But I don't think so.

The fact is, that time and again, in these military skirmishes, the Palestinian militants and the Palestinian citizens get the worst of it - by a large margin. In the past couple of weeks since the ambush, I think there is one Israeli soldier dead - and several dozen Palestinians dead.

The willingness to continue with tactics producing such results does also seem to indicate a devaluing of Palestinian life - and not by the Israelis - but rather the Palestinians behind such attacks.

It should go without saying that it is highly likely that such a devaluation is held by the few, not the many There in is the rub. Sadly, it didn't and doesn't have to be this way.

For those that have been foolish enough to read me on these issues the last few years, you'll know I think a general peace between Israel and Palestine is close at hand. I believe, as ironic as it may seem, that the current fighting may be bringing that day even closer. I believe Hamas is becoming more and more self-aware.

Incidentally, if Hamas were sincerely interested in developing a significant lobby group it would be so easy. Here's a recipe:

Announce an immediate cessation of hostilites, renouncing violence. Do this unilaterally. Hire and train some reasonably handsome spokespeople who have a strong command of English.

After 3 months introduce them to your spokespeople to CNN, etc.

Start using the obvious catch phrases like "embracing peace". Find your equivalent of "glasnost" and "perestroika". Make sure your higher ups are similarly trained. Give it 9 more months. Really - it's not that difficult. (My further prediction: 10 years from now some of those spokespeople will have permanent jobs at CNN, etc.)


Are you stupid or insane?

Rhetorical question. I know the answer.

What does it say about the Palestinian militants that they see it as a fair swap - 1500 (now much less) Palestinians for one Israeli?

1. It reflects, foremost, the asymmetry of power and capabilities. Palestinians can rarely capture a single Israeli soldier, while Israelis can throw thousands of Palestinians in jail at will. I'd guess the militants would have offered a better exchange ratio (drastically improving the self-valuation of Palestinian life by your asinine metric) if only they could lay their hands on a second or third soldier!

2. The implicit "valuation of life" reflected in choices usually captures circumstance and alternative opportunities more than fundamental attitudes towards mortal risk (unless strict controls are used in analysis). Sons of millionaires don't become Alaskan crab fishermen, but it's boneheaded to conclude that the average rich guy values life more than the average poor in any fundamental sense (except via the opportunities afforded by wealth). Even holding constant cultural and religious parameters, the poor, powerless and dispossessed will adopt more deadly (to self) strategies in conflict.

3. In bargaining, asking price is a reflection of estimated willingness to pay, not the seller's own value for the object on sale (except placing an upper bound). If I'm bald and in possession of an electric hair-dryer, I won't give it away free. I ask for approximate market price, or put it up on ebay.

4. Prisoner exchange ratio is a comparison of apples and oranges (from either side's perspective) anyway. If I'm willing to trade two prisoners for the release of one of my own, it shows that I place a higher value on the life of my guy than the political/security value of holding two prisoners. It does not tell, in any obvious way, my parochial premium for human life.

5. By your own recommendation, these decisions should be taken based on long term considerations (such as establishing reputation) rather than short term acceptable trade-offs. This makes the attempt to extricate Palestinian valuation of life utterly self-contradictory. If the ransom demand was pared down to a one-for-one swap and Israel still declined, would it follow that Israel values Palestinian life more than Israeli life?

I could go on, but Hamas hasn't paid me enough money to extend the advocacy (remember?) I'd call your post sophistry if only it were a little more competent. I find it informative that you're generally perceived as a thoughtful poster. Goes to show the importance of style-over-substance in social interaction, i.e. a pontificatory tone and sociability will usually mask the peddling of blatant and illogical bias.

I addressed some of your points in my top post.

If it were just a matter of trading prisoners I'd agree it doesn't say much about valuations. In fact you are agreeing with me here - I made the point first.

As for criticizing my style -given your rhetorical flourish you've just displayed is a little calling the kettle black, no?

On the issue of short term vs. long term considerations - I'll continue to view it as a complicated mess. Releasing 1,500 Palestinian prisoners may well have long term unwanted consequences. Are you denying this? If Israel had never before agreed to a prisoner swap, do you think Shalit would be a hostage now?

So what's your point? Where's your argument this isn't about the valuation of life? In your equation, if you hold a bunch of things constant, what's left has to be the variable.


Illiterate (way past borderline)

It is often true in your case, between illiteracy, dimwittedness and bias, it's hard to apportion credit. In this instance, though, I feel it's safe to assume that you didn't understand (by some combination of incapacity and unwillingness) a word of what I said. Anyway, what a splendid rationale for violent and oppressive policies if it can be argued, by whatever contortion of logic, that the subjects themselves value their lives at next to nothing. You did insert the qualifier that it applies to "few, not many", but given your penchant for extending representation and responsibility willy nilly (Hamas faction to Hamas, Hamas to Palestinians), as evidenced by your cheerleading of the destruction of civilian infrastructure, it's little more than a disingenuous footnote.

Don't kid yourself that my description of you is rhetorical, even if my subject line was.

"as evidenced by your cheerleading of the destruction of civilian infrastructure".

Militants have fired roughly 1,000 missiles into Israel proper.

You say I'm "cheerleading." I say Israel's response has been both very targeted and appropriate. No comment though from you on those missiles.

In my view this line of argument you are using is beneath you. You avoid basic premises. You ignore what I say, and attempt a poor spin.

Here's an example.

I quote an article where a Palestinian talks about the "natural logic" of such a lopsided swap.

Adding the term 'natural' to the term 'logic' has a long history. It might predate Aristotle. The prima facie interpretation of such a term is that the "natural" value of what is being swapped is equal. Perhaps that's an unintended consequence of the term - but I'm not the one who put it out there. Add to this the willingness to take disproportionate losses without obvious gain (except perhaps political - which adds to the point, not detracts), and you have a fairly simple argument for a difference in the valuation of lives. Add to this the extremely disproportionate number of people to be exchanged in this swap.... and the best you come up with is some name-calling?

I'm well aware of the ability to build premises which would counter the claim - though you did an ass-poor job of it. It's a thesis - and it was built on 3 premises and you'll just have to do better than that.

Really, its become apparent I bring out the worst in you. You can be a much better poster than this. Anyway, I'm not going to be around much the next while, so save your breath on a response.


I didn't write about missile launches because (other than laziness) I don't sense much disagreement that at least the extreme fringe of Hamas (funny term) is idiotic and depraved. There is however considerable difference of opinion on the morality and strategic wisdom of the Israeli response (more widely considered a moral agent), though I'm not interested in debating that broader topic with you either. There is only so much patience one can have with incomprehension and unresponsive bloviating, and for me it has ceased to be a profitable exchange long ago. I responded because you floated a toxic idea that shouldn't pass without comment. The idiocy (or interchangeably, blind bigotry: weights depending on assessment of your intelligence) of the "thesis" that skewed death tolls in conflict imply skewed self-valuations of life should be self evident, but given the pervasiveness of skimming and cultural filters, I'm afraid it isn't.*

For the illiterate, the careless and social allies, I invite extending the logic to other test cases. Look up Soviet-Nazi death ratios and decide whether Russians denigrated the value of their lives (more than Nazis did theirs) by refusing to surrender Leningrad. Maybe German Holocaust victims displayed blatant disregard for life by failing to emigrate when Hitler came to power? Try thinking why the obvious excuses (other options worse, liberty and honor more important, miscalculation, lack of foresight, etc.) wouldn't apply, or rather, what the unwillingness to even consider them means. It's also worth noting that disingenuous qualifier notwithstanding, TQM feels free to psychologically generalize (the reference to long term death toll of the conflict and overall Palestinian strategy (which is highly decentralized), as opposed to particular instances).

I'm quite comfortable with the insult-to-content ratio of my response, TQM. It's always interesting to note how quickly decorum becomes your principal argument. (Surely, by saying that, I have dug my own grave, since it will unleash a flurry of gibberish that may read like a rebuttal to the unwary).

* A far less tortuous argument is citing the suicide bomber, where self destruction is clearly intentional. I'm tired of repeating the obvious, but it's a strategy that can easily be framed instrumentally (i.e. for perceived political gain, even if in error, as opposed to the wanton pleasure of killing) and in terms quite familiar in western democracies ("Ask not what your country…") Anyway, bears repeating that all this is comparative, and devaluation of enemy life seems to me quick and universal. Also, surely cultural differences exist even in basic attitudes, but burden of evidence should be high in making specific claims (TQM: for practice, set the bar at 6 inches).

Insomnia keeps me here tonight. Work takes me away for a while, and the conversation isn't goin very far.

For the record, I think the Soviet/Nazi case fits what I say well. Soviet idealogy wasn't exactly based on the value of the person, whereas Nazi ideology..... (you can fill it in yourself).

Still - there are fundamental difference between these two cases (the possibilty of success, for instance).

There is neither idiocy nor bigotry in suggesting the possibility that some value lives here differently. In fact, we all value lives differently - there's no universal force here.

Now I'm sure there will be places I generalized too quickly, but really, your over simplifying and intentional mischaracterizations and name calling are worse sins.

Even your view that it is only a "fringe" of Hamas is really laughable. That you'd engage in that kind of rhetorical ploy perhaps makes you feel better. You denounced the fringe. Good on you. Just a few dozen of those nutters.

Well I've got news for you. The carpet that is Hamas has some pretty big fringes. Do you feel the same way about Sinn Fein and the IRA?

So you sneak in terms like "fringes" and "cheerleader". This has become a typical move from you.

And decorum isn't my principle argument. But my thesis on you is that your argumentation goes downhill when you resort to name calling, but not because of the name calling - its a symptom, not a cause.

And that too is a silly tactic of yours. I point out how stupid your name calling is - and you see it as me somehow switching my main argument.

The truth is, we've had this discussion numerous times before, and I'm not going to let it pass. If this irritates you, so what?

Perhaps, though, we are arguing here over the burden of proof. If that's all your point is, really you've made it foolishly. If your song here is merely one of caution, you could have scored more points by making the point.

In my top post I pointed out that there was an alternative to interpreting the exchange of prisoners. I pointed it out, and tried to argue against it.

And I made it clear in the top post that I think this kind of valuation is held by some and not all. If there are places where I've over-generalized, I do apologize for that - feel free to add the appropriate specifications where needed. But really, this strikes me as grasping at straws.

In fact, you are commiting the very sin you convict me of - the burden of proof thing. You dismiss the places where I've been careful each and every time, and hope to score points in the one or two places where I may have been less careful (hypothetically - I'm too lazy to look up what you are talking about - after all, this isn't the first time you've pulled this kind of stunt on me.)

Any way, I meant what I said to alexa. I can't get my shorts in a knot over you anymore. Perhaps I'm just unable to evaluate things properly that I'm involved in, but really, I find your manouevres here generally disappointing.


Previous reply was mistakenly posted to Alexa.

Re missiles/kidnappings, etc.: I was responding to your (typical) insinuation that my silence on this or that indicates tacit approval. Clearly, explication won't suffice, because you'll tediously keep expanding the span of what I haven't denounced (what about the whole of Hamas and its past record? The Intifadas? Genghis Khan? [For official records, I do hereby condemn the Mongol]).

Re "fringe": Sure, it's wishful thinking (the size implication). I thought it'll sit well with your stubborn optimism (exchange with daveto, Fritz)! If times they are a changin', how are they changin' unless the elected Palestinian party has undergone a significant shift in attitude? Anyway, I'll only emphasize the strategic significance of the seeming internal split within Hamas at this moment (external aggression being typically a winner for uber hawks).

Re generalization: it's prominent in your post and responses, not a sloppy detail tucked in a corner. Quotes available but unnecessary: you're clearly not talking in isolation about the missile firing; you're talking comprehensively about the historical Palestinian approach to the conflict. It's dumb to pretend the violent tactics of either side hasn't been backed by broad popular sympathy (the election of Hamas, if proof be needed), so any attendant psychological diagnosis cannot be restricted to a marginal group of Likudniks or "militants", if one is speaking of general patterns. I don't think you seriously believe that either (reply to mfbenson suggestive).

Re "natural logic": Your pedantry is obtuse in itself, but even were it reasonable, I doubt Hamas militants are well versed in the pre or post Aristotelian nuances of philosophical jargon.

Re Leningrad: B+ for blaming it on Stalinism. For next week's homework, try the Armenian genocide, Bosnia-Kosovo and the native American wipeout. Practice maketh perfect.

I'd say I lose again! The thread has reached a length where it probably looks even purely due to information overload (relative to attention deficit). I should have stuck with insults and eschewed all else.