It seems as if every time we get a newspaper or listen to the news on TV, we learn that another American soldier has been killed in Iraq or in Afghanistan. Their families are devastated, loved ones mourn in profound grief, and we, as a nation, suffer deep pain. We recall the words of King David, “How Have the Might Fallen?” (II Sam. 1: 25), words he allegedly wrote in reference to his beloved friend Jonathan and his father, King Saul, who had died in battle against the Philistines.
In our days, we have just started to learn how appreciate the sanctity of human life, and therefore are capable of sharing the agony of every family member who looses a son or a daughter in war. This is the reason why on Oct. 29, 2009 President Obama flew before dawn to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to welcome the 18 Afghan war soldiers who died recently. It is also the reason why Israel is agonizing as it tries to obtain the freedom of one single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who had been abducted by Hamas on June 25, 2006 during a cross border raid, even if it means releasing hundreds of Arab murderess from Israeli jails. Human life counts.
By comparison, a cursory survey of past wars presents such a dismal image of human loss that it is utterly unimaginable for many of us now. Just look at these figures: During our Revolutionary War, 4435 soldiers died, and 6188 were wounded. During the Civil war, the number dramatically went up, for both North and South, to 191,963 dead and 354,805 wounded. At the end of the World War II, they have counted 291,557 US dead with 671,846 wounded. These numbers are beyond belief, but still not as bad as what happened to the rest of the world. It is estimated that between 50 to 70 million people died during this war, with the USSR losing around 26 million, Germany between 6 to 8 million, and Jews alone 6 million.
Some of these atrocities are attributable to some individuals or governments. Stalin alone was responsible for the dead of 17 million of his compatriots in the Soviet Union, and the Chinese cultural revolution of 1965-1968 caused the lives of about 30 million. In our time, starting in April 1994, and for the following 100 days, about 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militias. These numbers are unfathomable. It is beyond comprehension in any civilized society.
Ancient Rabbis proclaimed the sanctity of every human being, and declared that “if a man causes the death of a single human being, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish.” And, conversely, “when a person saves another one, Scriptures imputes to him as though he had saved a whole world” (M Sanh. 4: 5). Every human being, I maintain, is sacred, and deserves to be treated as such. No one has the right to take another person’s life, unless it is in self-defense or to stop the carnage caused by this individual. And that includes, the death penalty imposed by governments. Life is sacred and a gift from God. When will we learn this lesson, and internalize it so that it becomes part of our nature? I don’t think we are there yet. Maybe, some day.