On the Fluctuating Value of Lives

Recent events have taken me back to almost a year ago. Time flies, suffering and indifference remains. What I found confirmed through these events and their reception in Australia is that we need to acknowledge equality ever more urgently.

Within two weeks last year, over 750 Palestinians lost their lives in what became known as the war on Gaza. Thousands more were wounded. While some were admittedly soldiers from Hamas, many, if not most, were civilians. A third were children. On 6 January 2009, The Australian reported that in an online poll on their website 53 per cent believed the invasion to be justified. Even if The Australian’s readers do not adequately represent the Australian population as a whole, this led me to wonder why so many people, in a country which has in fact no direct link to the conflict, could decide to support such an invasion. What argument could justify the death of hundreds and the further starvation and impoverishment of thousands? Can the deaths of a few Israeli justify such a massacre? It is a strange reminiscence of colonial times, when the slaughter of many more colonised was adequate punishment for the murder of a coloniser.

This is of course not to say that Israeli civilian deaths should not be deplored or condemned, and should be forgotten or forgiven because they do not compare in number to Palestinian deaths. However, I found the fact of these deaths hardly sufficient to support an invasion which was bloodier than any rocket launched from Gaza ever was, and quite possibly could ever be.

Acknowledging the equal value of Palestinian and Israeli lives could therefore be a start. What kind of equality? The most basic form: both are human beings and are as such equal. For this point to hold, equality has to be understood as an axiom. That is, it cannot be understood as a goal but as a starting point, as a state that requires enactment through prescriptions. The Palestinians and the Israelis are obviously not, in practice, equal in terms of justice, food and liberty, just as  Palestinians are individually different from one another. However, as mentioned earlier, they are all human beings and this makes them, I believe, undeniably equal. From this point, it becomes impossible to justify unfair or discriminatory conduct. Still, it is the denial of this axiom of equality, which can be witnessed on an everyday basis in the news, that I believe is one of the most important impediments to radical change.

During the war on Gaza, on Christmas day 271 people were killed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only a few lines appeared in the French news. A week later, a short article in The Age mentioned the killing of 500 villagers in a single day. Needless to say this did not make the front page. On the other hand, the Palestinian crisis was, over several days, front page material for most newspapers across the world.

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has killed more than 5.4 million people in ten years, but maybe because it does not seem to be about to end, we can probably wait before taking interest in it. During last’s year’s Christmas festivities, Australia’s cricket team not doing so well and the Palestinian conflict were enough to satisfy our right to freedom of information. Far be it for me to judge from a self-righteous perspective—I admit I knew very little about the RDC conflict before the publication of an article on Rue89.com highlighting the disparity of treatment between the deaths of people depending on their nationality, skin colour, background or whatever is, or could be, used to differentiate and alienate them.

Many questions (re)surfaced after reading this article. Why do we care more about some lives than others? Why were the American lives lost during the 9/11 attacks so important, while over ten years in the Congo the same number of people have died every two days with a response of complete indifference? Why is the Palestinian conflict so much more mediatised than the Congolese, the Sudanese, the Haitian? Have we all finally given up the idea that all human beings should be allowed to live a decent life, or even just live? Does the number of conflicts happening around the world force us to make a choice between those we should care about and those we have to leave aside? Is this decision linked to a wish to ignore the effects of colonisation, past and present, on some parts of the globe?

Things have not changed in the last nine months, and recent events have brought me back to this topic. On 3 October, the earthquake and tsunami in Sumatra made the front page of The Age, and probably most newspapers in the country. To my surprise (I may be naive) I could not find the number of victims on this page, while the number of Australians missing was written three times. If I remember well, the total number of victims did not appear before page seven. 1300 perished. Some might say it is normal to care more for one’s neighbour or for one’s family. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right Front National party in France, said so himself. Still, I could understand, if not condone, such a sentiment that leads someone to want to know how many people from one’s homeland might have died in such a catastrophe. What shocks me is the disdain with which the alien victims are treated. Is it because they are poor? From a different culture? Overseas? This probably links back to the irrational creation that is nationalism. Why should one consider themself more closely related to the sportsman who earns millions and lives on the other side of the country (or overseas) than to their foreign neighbour with whom they share their daily life? Of this, I’m not sure.

Still, it gets worse. The day after the Age ‘incident’, it happened that an information session was organised by the Congolese community. This event reminded me that on average more than a thousand people die each and every day in the Congo because of war, and that except on some very rare occasions these people do not even make it to page seven of our newspapers. On that day, most of what I had learned since last January was confirmed by witnesses of the bloodiest war since World War II. Why is this war taking place? For the same reason the Congo has been exploited and millions of its people killed since the 19th century: its vast natural resources. First it was rubber, exploited by the Belgians and King Leopold II, and resulting in the deaths of around 10 million people. The King made an immense fortune—recently, one of his palaces on the French Riviera was sold for a record US$895 million. After the independence of the 1960s, neo-colonialist forces were not yet ready to let the Congo go its own way and benefit from its own resources (coltan, diamonds, gold). After the CIA ‘got rid of’ Lumumba, the Congo’s only elected leader, who had pledged to overcome the Congo’s ethnic divisions, Mobutu, whom many Congolese dissidents call the ‘puppet’, was put in place to keep business going as usual. Exploitation continued, and Mobutu’s wealth soon grew to over US$5 billion. In 1996, Mobutu was overthrown and from then on, the First and Second Congo Wars raged, between the Congolese themselves, but also involving seven neighbouring countries who were keeping their eye on the Congo’s resources. Over 5 million people died within a decade and 1.8 million were displaced; many women were raped and mutilated; thousands of children were enrolled in militias, often after having been forced to kill their own parents; thousands more children were enslaved to work in mines.

Nowadays, coltan has replaced rubber and diamonds. The RDC holds around 80 per cent of the world’s reserves in its soil. I assume that many, until recently myself included, do not even know what coltan is and yet could not live without it. Coltan is a crucial mineral in the construction of many electronic objects, from mobile phones to computers and game consoles. It was for coltan that Rwanda and other neighbouring countries invaded the Congo under the false pretence of looking for those guilty of genocide. As a UN report uncovered, they headed straight towards the mines. At the same time, facilitating the invasion, the price of coltan (illegal to mine in the Congo) soared because of the necessity to build more and more PlayStations. Australian companies, such as Talison Minerals and Sons of Gwalia, have played an important part in this bloody trade. In 2001, Australia produced around 80 per cent of the coltan illegally mined in RDC and bought from the Rwandese.

All this has been tolerated because of our denial of equality in the face of the all-powerful laws of the market. All these deaths because we have decided to accept that life can be given a fluctuating value that can be weighed against other goods. The deaths of millions of black people seems, therefore, if not tolerable, at least acceptable, in the face of the incredible benefits we can draw from it. In the end, it comes down to this: How much blood is my PlayStation worth?

There is an optimistic point here. There is a solution and it is in our own hands. Only equality as a starting point can be this solution, not only for particular conflicts such as those taking place in the Middle East or in the Congo, but for most of the inhuman treatment a huge proportion of the people living on this planet are subjected to every day (lack of drinking water, food shortages, death from curable diseases). What is happening in the Congo or in Gaza is not just one special and out of the ordinary thing—it is what is happening in many other places in the world every day. Acknowledging this equality is the first step towards taking our own responsibilities away from those who judge us incapable, and who have made us responsible for cruelty most would never have tolerated.

It is with Jacques Rancičre’s words that I conclude:

“It is true that we do not know that humans are equal. We are saying that they might be. This is our opinion, and we are trying, with those who believe as we do, to verify it. But we know that this might is exactly what makes a society of humans possible.”

What is to be done? Relying solely on our governments and NGOs, or finally emancipating ourselves and accepting our responsibilities? As Rancičre noted, ‘the government does not owe the people its education for the simple reason that one does not owe the people what it can acquire on its own’. In fact, education is like liberty: one does not receive it, one acquires it.

Aurelien Mondon in Arena – December issue

Articles written by members of the Melbourne Free University represent their author’s views, and not necessarily the views of the MFU.