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: weorðmyndum. 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 weorðmyndum.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert