Monday, July 02, 2007

Wergild

When I studied Old English in college, I not only learned a new language, I gained insight into my own culture and its past through its history of languge.

I remember the strange and yet familiar words, the complex and myriad meanings, the grammatical rules, the hours groups of us spent translating and seeking the best modern word for an ancient concept. But most of all, I remember the professor.

The course was taught by a former Jesuit, who left to marry a Russian emigre (please recall this was the 80s and early 90s, so that was actually noteworthy back then).

I was recruited in college for a job, and this professor steered me away from it. I subsequently took a different job, which happened to be with his wife. During a major crisis at that job, we were evacuating and had a matter of seconds before contamination. I happen to be the sort who keeps a cool head during such times, and the professor's wife was not. Who knows her history or why the event affected her so much. She panicked, got confused and ultimately stumbled and fell.

I noticed, went back, helped her up, spoke calmly and soothingly to her, and pulled her out of the building.

Her gratitiude---and his---embarassed me.

They claimed I saved her life.

I didn't think it was that dramatic. Bottom line was our lives weren't really in danger. The lab did explode and chemicals did enter the central air before it shut down. However, while the two elements that hit did create a huge mess, they didn't end up toxic.

They said this didn't matter; at the time we believed we were in mortal danger and I stopped to help her out.

This wasn't special in my mind---this is simply what you do. She needed help, I could provide it and so I did.

They reluctantly conceded to my request that simple thanks was enough. But my professor, of course, got in the last word: weorĂ°myndum. Honor.

I remembered this long-ago incident when reading articles collected at The Institute for Policy Studies. The one that struck me was from the Christian Science Monitor, "Are all lives equal? Not according to the way the US compensates victims," by Anas Shallal.

Question: How much is an Iraqi life worth? Answer: A lot less than an American or British life, according to the amount of compensation paid to the relatives of victims.

Wergild, I thought, recalling my professor and his class, and then, more startingly, I realized that had the incident with his wife turned out differently, he might have experienced wergild first hand.

Wergild---one of many possible spellings by the way, but a common one, and one I am sticking with for consistency---is blood money.

It's a bribe, really; the money a faulty party pays to assuage the anger and grief of a victim's family. In the time of Beowulf, when Old English was spoken (450-1100), it's the money one tribe paid to another to prevent retaliatory attacks.

These days, we don't call it wergild, we call it compensation. But it's the same thing.

You can find it a lot in Irag and Afghanistan right now. In the commission of a war, there are innocent bystander casualties and wrongful deaths, often of civilians.

What might look like a small number, a mere statistic, or an accident might be the pivotol point that ruins an entire family. That kind of tragedy can lead to anger, which might lead to retaliation.

So the US pays wergild.

Is it applied in a fair fashion, though?

Anas Shallal's article speculates

It's hard to get definitive data on compensation for Iraqi victims. However, it is clear that the precise sum of money paid is often done so at the whim of the commanding officer.

This compensation is channeled through a discretionary fund that is given to the field commanders, and the criteria for disbursement are subjective at best.

In the early months of the invasion, the United States paid Iraqis $106,000 for 176 claims - averaging about $600 per claim.

During the siege of Fallujah, where US soldiers killed 18 people and wounded 78 during an April 2004 firefight, the American military commander in the area paid $1,500 for each fatality and $500 for each injury.

More recently the US paid $38,000 for Haditha victims' family members. That comes up to less than $1,600 per person killed. What a bargain.

The most any Iraqi has received to date for injury or property damage is $15,000.

By comparison, the Libyan government recently settled a lawsuit for victims of Pan Am 103, which was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The Libyans paid $2.7 billion for 270 passengers with an average payment of $10 million per death. Shortly after the war with Iraq, the Bush administration pressed for legislation to double the death benefits paid to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan to $500,000.

Last year a Seattle woman was awarded $45,000 for the wrongful death of her cat.

I think the last bit puts it all in perspective, doesn't it?

And this is also assuming you can even get the money. Shallal explains the near-impossibility of meeting criteria to get compensation

For Iraqis to get a claim paid is harder than getting a rebate on your iPod. First you must have all your documents in order - birth certificates, witness accounts, proof of identity, etc. Most witnesses are afraid to come forward for fear of retribution. Obtaining birth certificates and proof of identity for some is nearly impossible, due to displacement or other mitigating circumstances. Then, you must get "proof of negligence of US soldier from a US soldier or unit."

That's a task that is virtually impossible, being that US soldiers are instructed not to assume blame. The claim must be filed within 30 days of the death along with a phone number for contact, making it out of the question since the overwhelming majority of Iraqis do not have phones.

Furthermore, the loopholes are so complicated that for most Iraqis it is nearly impossible to get a claim filed, let alone paid.

When payments are made, liability is never acknowledged and oftentimes family members are asked to sign waivers to exempt US personnel from any legal action.

Additionally, the US has issued rules that prohibit these cases from being pursued in Iraqi courts, and put up roadblocks so that it is nearly impossible for a day in any sort of American court.

This boggles my mind; if we are there to liberate, then why act like invaders?

I wondered about the precedent. What had reparations been in past wars, to the "losers?" I found ample information about reparation to countries for rebuilding effort, more about reparation for intellectual seizures (technology, patents, etc.) during the war, and even an apology and money for the Japanese American internment victims. I did not find anything about individual compensation or reparation. Possibly this was handled locally out of war reparation funds? Or possibly not at all, and victims' families were simply out of luck.

The bottom line is that inadequate, unfair, or perceived punitively reparation can actually provoke retaliation.

To this day, many scholars believe that the reparations of World War I were in large part responsible for World War II. Further, the current Middle East conflict is attributed to the reparations of World War II.

What future crisis have we set in motion with this unequal---and potentially insulting---wergild in Iraq?

Perhaps in addition to wergild, we ought to consider also more weorĂ°myndum.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

22 comments:

kaliroz said...

I remember reading Beowulf in high school and discussing wergild.

It felt just as wrong then as it does now.

How do you quantify the worth of a human life? Obviously the US government has decided to do it based on nationality. Which, as we all know, is simply an accident of birth.

How is it some bureaucrat can sit in an office and decide how much a life is worth? Even if it's in the millions it's little more than a paltry sum. That person will never be back. Never.

No amount of money can erase Never.

Julie Pippert said...

Hmm. Good points.

I'm not opposed to the notion of weregild. it can't bring back of course and it can't assuage grief and loss. But it can compensate, it can assuage need and new problems. However, to accomplish this, it must be a fair value.

Here we hit your other good point: how do you quantify the value of a human life?

In the Beowulf era, there were straightforward values, with men such as warriors worth the most, women worth less than cows, the typical.

Now we have professionals that perform complex calculations or we select our own worth, via life insurance policies.

It's not all we are of course, a monetary value, but at base, all of us have some monetary value assigned to our whole and even our parts.

Remember those old policies from school? If you lost an arm at school you got X dollars, a leg was worth Y, etc? I always wondered, but what about the kid whose arm shows promise in baseball pitching...is it worth the same? Or what about a leftie losing a right versus a rightie losing a right?

My mother said quit wondering about this it was macabre. LOL

Karen said...

This came up all the time in Women's Studies in college because I kept taking things like Women in the Middle Ages and it did make my head hurt and was rather macabre but at the same time I had to think about it to understand the way our world works now. And, of course, it is never enough, but money represents value and that's important to talk about.

Lawyer Mama said...

I love that you studied Old English. Just one more reason to love you.

In my first year of law school, I took torts and it shocked me. The question of how to value a human life is what torts is all about.

"I always wondered, but what about the kid whose arm shows promise in baseball pitching...is it worth the same?" The answer is no, it's not, but it's a subjective standard. And that's the problem with reparations in Iraq, as you've so aptly pointed out.

It is a bit macabre, Julie, you mom was right! But I think that it makes us uncomfortable for a reason. Blood money may have a useful place in society, but it still just feels wrong, doesn't it? To discuss a personal or national tragedy in terms of monetary "value."

Great post. You're always surprising me.

Christine said...

julie, you write about the most interesting and important topics. The topics I want tot talk about but somehow i just can't get the words out right.

Anyway, the compensation is Iraq saddens me so much.

And interesting point about compensation from one war playing into the next one.

thailandchani said...

Who was that guy, right after 9/11, who was appointed to assign a dollar sign to each one of the victims?

I can't recall his name for the life of me now but he wrote a book about this process and the criteria they use.

There is a speculation as to how much money the person might have made in his or her lifetime. That was the fundamental consideration.

All in all, rather disgusting.
More weyrdmynum would replace the need for wergilt.

But there's not much weyrdmynum around these days.

Perhaps that's why I don't generally favor reparations. It doesn't solve the problem and raises far too many ethical issues.


Peace,

~Chani

Catherine said...

Julie - WOW. What a story. I have more to say, but my baby is calling. But I did want to let you know that I interacted with your comments on organ donors. No, Melissa did not have CF....but my thoughts are with your SIL and her unborn child...

Kyla said...

The thing about the cat kills me. $45,000 for a cat and no more that $15,000 (and I'm sure that was a rare or one time high dollar amount) for human lives. Makes me feel sick.

jen said...

girl, it makes me want to spit. but you are freaking brilliant.

at what price, this?

Aliki2006 said...

Such a great post, Julie. I'm teaching a war & culture class this summer and only yesterday was talking about the connections between ALL conflicts. I think it's important not to view war in a vaccuum, because if we do that we lose sight of the colossal threat that is destruction and violence. We get apathetic, we reduce its impact.

I have a post brewing on this very topic...

Emily said...

GREAT post. Very important points. For once, I think this is going to be a long comment.

I understand that they have to pay members of the American military the sums they do. After all, they are being employed by the government in a hazardous situation, and they wouldn't do it if the money wasn't there. Also, I think it is important to remember that the kids we send over are often people who would not be in the military if it weren't their only financial option. We have created a system in the US where we basically pay our poor and minorities to go over and die for those with more money. Given that situation, I would be hard-pressed to condemn the high amounts we pay for American military lives.

So, the other side of the coin is the low amounts we pay for Iraqi lives. But, we cannot afford to pay that same high amount for every claim or we would all be paying a lot more taxes (not something I personally oppose, but I challenge you to find a majority of Americans who would support a massive tax increase to pay for Iraqi lives.)

Then, the issue of difficulty making claims. Well, there has to be protection against fraud.

So, these are the reasons the situation exists. It is unfair, it is sad, and it should be fixed, but all the above reasons are pretty valid. So, the question becomes, how to fix the situation while taking all of the above into consideration.

You can see why I became a writer instead of a politician -- I've not got a clue how to fix the problems.

As to how I feel about people behaving as though their cats are the center of the universe -- well, keep reading my blog.

Snoskred said...

Just a note about Lockerbie and a little known one from all accounts. The plane exploded at 31,000 feet at night time. The amount of oxygen at that altitude meant anyone who survived the actual explosion was quickly unconscious, however as the passengers fell the oxygen in the air increased, and many of them who survived the initial explosion regained consciousness before hitting the ground. Some passengers even survived the fall. One passenger was found with clumps of grass in her hands which she had pulled out of the ground after landing, in enormous pain. I don't think the Libyans paid enough for what those people went through. Can you imagine? Waking up falling from the sky, knowing you didn't have anything to stop you? I can't imagine it. I am horrified by it. Can you imagine it happening to your loved ones? It's terrible to consider it.

Had these passengers had parachutes, many of them would have survived. A ridiculous thought? Who would want to sit on a 747 wearing a parachute, just in case? Who *wouldn't*. It's not an option any of us have, but maybe it should be.

I don't believe any amount of money - $600 or $6,000,000 can compensate for these kinds of things. Even if it is just a cat. My cats are my kids, you know? I'm not having any kids. I don't think they are the centre of the universe (and I'll drop by to read more, Emily), but if I sent one to a boarding place and they let it get out and get run over, you bet your life I'd sue them. They have a responsibility, a duty of care. It would be no different to someone sending their child to day care and the people there letting the child get out into the street and run over.

I'd like to know more about why she was paid that.. do you have a link to an article at all?

Snoskred
http://snoskred.blogspot.com/

Julie Pippert said...

Just to be clear...

My point is not that individuals suffering from a loss of a loved one should NOT receive wergild (see my comment above---I accept the concept and believe it ought to be applied in most cases, not to compensate for the loss, but to compensate for the financial needs the loss brings about. I'm very practical sometimes.)

My point is that BECAUSE we clearly understand the VALUE of life (and those other cases prove it) I am APPALLED that we cannot display that in Iraq to victims families.

We have hordes of young men and women over there sacrificing their lives.

We have even more innocent bystanders losing theirs.

If we accept wergild culturally, and we do, then we need adequate, fair, accessible and available compensation.

TBH, I don't know that I believe soldiers are paid enough alive or dead. Their service is invaluable.

Like teachers.

But now I'm getting off track. :)

thailandchani said...

Probably to really understand this, you'd have to understand the mindset of power. (Hope you never do! :) To them, Iraqi lives are collateral damage... too bad... so sad. They feel no particular responsibility toward them. Just as members of the military who are there fighting are not viewed as completely human. They are resources. Human resources.

Emily raises a very good point about how many young people join the military because they don't have any other financial options.



Peace,

~Chani

kaliroz said...

Have you ever read Satanic Verses, snoskred? It opens with a man falling after a plane explosion. (I think it's a plane explosion, it's been a while.) When I read it the first time it totally made me think of the Lockerbie bombing ... although that happened after the book, didn't it? I can't remember.

And, Julie, I agree with you. I'm appalled that Iraqi lives are worth so little in the grand scheme of things.

I think wergild might have a place ... but I don't think I'll ever be okay with it.

Snoskred said...

Kaliroz - no, I haven't. I'll have to check it out.

Julie, I saw the point, I get what you're saying. ;) I don't believe so much that anyone should be paid "compensation" but I do believe that people in the wrong should pay for what they did.

Which brings about a whole other question, about whether it was right to go to Iraq at all. I'm torn on that.

I knew a guy who came to Australia as a refugee from Iraq, after the first Gulf War. He was Iraqi and the things he told me about what went on in that country.. I don't know..

Do we rate things on better or worse than Darfur and Hitler and terrible things that happen to people? Based on what he told me, someone should have gone in there and sorted out Saddam long before it happened. On the other hand, who should have done it? Is the US supposed to be policemen for the whole world? These are all issues I struggle at thinking about.

This man worked for a tv station in Iraq, as a camera man. He and three of his friends went around filming various military and other kinds of targets before making a dash with their families for the border to hand the information to the US. Incredible bravery. He could not go back to Iraq after that, so the US asked where he would like to go and they chose Australia.

I think most people there felt very let down when the job wasn't finished the first time. I wish it had been. I don't know if there will ever be a proper peace there.

Emily said...

Snoskred,
I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I am an animal lover and I adore cats!

Ally said...

I also remember learning that the reparations from WW1 contributed to WW2. I hadn't thought about the WW2 ones contributing to Iraq/Middle East conflicts. This is something I'll look into further.

Thanks for this insightful post. I wish we had no war, and no reason to ever have to compensate another for a life lost. No amount of money can possibly be enough.

NotSoSage said...

Wow. Julie, this was brilliant. Amazing. And shocking. I had no idea. None at all. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Mary-LUE said...

I've been thinking about this post for a day now. it is helpful to come back and read what others have to say. I'm glad Emily made the points she did. with perfect world idealism on one side of the spectrum and real world pragmatism on the other, I don't think those two can ever meet.

I agree that the threads of history and past conflict are very woven into today's conflicts, as is economical and ideological threads. I used the phrase Gordian knot in a post a few days ago and I think it is a metaphor that suits the situation of the world today. That is one reason why I am so hesitant to comment on political/socialogical posts sometimes. There are so many facets to it all; it is rarely clear cut.

I will say that I disagree with Chani about the attitude of those in power toward the loss of Iraqi life being "so sad... too bad" and that American military lives are not viewed as completely human. I can't say that all the powers that be in this conflict don't ever have that attitude, but I've seen and read enough to suspect that what contributes to that perspective is the result of both a defense mechanism which is necessary in any type of job where the loss of life is common, including police work, fire and rescue, emergency room , as well as the pragmatism end of the idealism/pragmatism spectrum.

In saying that, I am not saying that the those in power always make good/correct decisions. This is not my siding with all authority figures.

And the concept of honor. Wow, I could go on and on about that. Is honor an objective concept? Is it possible to say that two different people making the same choices have both acted honorably? So much of what you consider honor to be is determined from your point of view, what you value and consider important.

For example, after Cindy Sheehan's recent letter to the world stepping down from her fight/protest against the war in Iraq, I had a lot of questions. Is honor standing up for what you believe, regardless of the personal cost or is honor recognizing the needs of your family and pulling back from fighting for something you believe in for their sake? I think the answer to that will vary from person to person.

Does honor mean always making the idealistic/perfect world choice or doing your best with the pragmatic real world decisions that have to be made? (Again, this is not in any way a blanket endorsement of the war in Irag/Afghanistan,etc.) These are just questions that I would love to have be black and white, but I don't think they are and that makes it hard work, this wrestling with these ideas in a public forum--or internally for that matter.

(My propensity for long, long sentences which are not necessarily grammatically correct is showing in full force here.)

Catherine said...

Ok, I'm back to properly comment. My first thought is, ironically, KARMA. If we act badly on the world stage, we will have to pay. And it will be blood money.

My second thought is, why are we saying "I'm sorry for killing you" and then continuing to kill? If it were my kids, I'd say I didn't think they were really sorry. Possibly an explanation for the low sums?

kaliroz said...

That's interesting, Catherine. The not being sorry tied to low sums of money.

Or is it just that we're killing so many that we can't pay more?

If that's the real truth of it ... that quantity is driving the price ... I think I might be sick. Civilians always die in war, but it seems like they're dying in massive amounts in Iraq right now.

And whoever made the point that all conflicts are tied together is spot on. Today's conflicts are so often fueled by blood feuds that go back farther than anyone can remember.