The statistical value of a human life

Another curious snippet from the Wikileaks documents relates to nothing less than the value of a human life. The logs reveal that when Afghan civilians are killed as a result of military clumsiness, American policy is to compensate them to the tune of 100,000 Afghani, which may sound like a lot but actually amounts to the rather less than generous sum of $1,500.

Now in a world which aims to, in the words of Bill Hicks, put a price tag on every goddamn thing of value, it is inevitable that there should be a generally accepted measure of the value of a single life, and given the inequalities which condition every aspect of our lives, it is inevitable that it should differ considerably. According to the Value of Statistical Life (VSL), the measure used by insurance agencies and so on, the estimated value (in terms of foregone earnings and the lost contributions to the economy) of a (US) soldier in the Iraq war was between $6.1 and $7.2 million. So Harmad Karzai appears to have a point when he protests that Afghan lives are regarded by the occupying forces as ‘cheap’.

Another interesting point of comparison comes from Turkey, In 2004, the Turkish Government adopted Law 5233 on “the Compensation of Losses Resulting from Terrorist Acts and the Measures Taken Against Terrorism” in favour of those who had suffered losses or damage as a result of “action by terrorist organisations and measures taken by the government to combat it” since 1987. There was considerable anger at the meagre levels of compensation involved; for example For example in Diyarbakir, the amounts offered were 16,000 YTL (€10,000) for a death, while in other provinces it was offered 15,000 YTL (€9,500).

This case contrasts sharply with the amount of compensation paid to the family of a British tourist, also in Turkey. In this incident, one killed and 5 injured in the same family, victims of a terrorist attack while on a holiday in 2005 were awarded more than £1m by the Turkish government.

A non–monetary echo of this can currently be seen on the Guardian website, where the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of Pakistanis, a tragedy apparently greater than that of the 2004 tsunami, the Haiti disaster and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan combined, is relegated halfway down the page, below the huge splash on the tragic resignation of a football manager. Evidence that, in the oft- and fondly-quoted words of Bill Shankly, football is so much more important than either life or death.

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