How Much is a Life Worth?

The US media’s coverage of the carnage in Gaza reflects more than just pro-Israeli tendencies.

Hollywood has been known to grapple with the value of human life. The film Saving Private Ryan, a 1998 shocker set in the Second World War, dealt with the matter in great depth. To a family, a single death is the end of the world, and multiple deaths are so unbearable that their emotional impact can barely be portrayed on the screen. On the battlefield, deaths are lost in the high speed chaos of combat, and commanders subsequently report to their superiors in abstract terms, talking about how their “losses” were heavier or lighter than expected, the ending of human lives and the grief imposed on countless families reduced to a statistical and tactical analysis. For a commander to allow emotion to enter his decision-making could endanger the men under his command further down the line. The film asks if it is worthwhile risking multiple lives to save one, and at the end we are shown the positive impact of a life saved, the descendants of the surviving soldier standing as a testament to why it was all worth it. But we do not see anything of the much larger number of families who lost loved ones in order to save this one person, or the children who were never born because of the deaths of his comrades.

Hollywood frames the value of life in terms of what suits the narrative. The protagonist and the main characters generally survive, but in the tradition of the Star Trek red shirted officers who are doomed before they beam down into a dangerous situation, the characters who are less well developed are usually sacrificed to keep the story emotionally rewarding.

In Black Hawk Down, a 2001 film set in America’s 1993 intervention in Somalia, an injured American pilot crawls to temporary safety while the baying mob surrounds the wreckage of the helicopter and desecrates the bodies of the dead crew inside. He fires his few remaining shots and kills a few Somalis, the deaths of these extras recorded as mere split-second incidents, the characters unknown, faceless, nameless. Their deaths barely register on the audience’s attention meter. Our hero then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a picture of his sweetheart for one last look, and the camera zooms into his tragic face as he awaits his fate, certain that he is about to die. The long and detailed treatment of his experience is in contrast to that of the gunmen whose lives he so casually ended a few seconds ago. We know nothing of their lives or their motivations for fighting in the first place. All we know is that they are bad guys and their casual deaths are probably justified.

The American media’s current coverage of the latest escalation in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict also follows a particular narrative. We see Israelis running for cover in the airport while the largely ineffective Hamas rockets are intercepted. We see the first world problems and inconvenience suffered by travelers trying to get to Israel from American airports amid air traffic diversions from Tel Aviv. But we scarcely see any of the blood and flesh being spilled at the receiving end of Israeli shelling and air strikes. We do not get a sense of the experience of the Palestinian civilians who are dying in their hundreds and being injured and maimed in their thousands under the watchful eye of Israeli spectators camped on hillsides watching the destruction as a form of sick entertainment. One Israeli soldier going missing has been deemed worthy of an entire story in the New York Times, while the background of the conflict that would go a long way to explaining why the Palestinians have a grievance is absent from much of the media coverage. The term “occupied territories” is never heard on American television, nor are the multitude of UN resolutions that have been violated by Israel over the years. All we hear is the well worn soundbites about Israel’s right to self defense, and nobody questions the assumption that artillery fire and air strikes in one of the most densely populated areas on Earth are the only way to deal with extremists. Nobody seems to be discussing how civilian casualties, the biggest recruiting tools that Hamas could ever ask for, are being handed to the extremists on a plate, almost as if the Israeli government is determined to make a two-state solution impossible.

As well as as parroting claims by Israeli authorities that Hamas are using civilians as “human shields”, accusations that are disputed, reports are framed in terms of balance even where none exists. Fighting is reported “on both sides”. Both sides are “trading” rockets and missiles, when in fact one side is scarcely being touched while the other is facing the annihilation of large portions of the civilian population.

False balance has been a problem in American reporting for quite some time, so terrified are journalists of accusations of bias. If the World Cup had been reported according to the prevailing standards of American journalism, every match would have been reported as a draw including Germany’s 7-1 demolition of Brazil.

However the dehumanization of the Palestinians is perhaps the most telling aspect of this coverage. Middle class Israelis in western-looking cities are much easier to relate to than displaced Palestinians who have been penned into Gaza and forced to live in appalling conditions. Even President Obama’s statements on such matters are noteworthy in their emphasis. At a press briefing on July 18, in condemning the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, he talked at great length of the “nearly 300 innocent lives were taken — men, women, children, infants — who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine. Their deaths are an outrage of unspeakable proportions.” Obama spoke of America’s long standing relationship with the Dutch people, its shared grief about the tragedy, and vowed to get to the bottom of it. Fine words, and delivered as eloquently as ever. However of the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, after the usual preamble about Israel’s right to defend itself, he warned that he was “deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.” Note the absence of an assessment of the scale of that human tragedy and no offer of condolences to the families of the dead.

This is perfectly in keeping with American media portrayal of the situation. As long as this kind of disregard for Palestinian lives persists, it is likely that America’s support for Israel, support that ultimately maintains the lopsided imbalance of military power, will remain in place.