Most Western societies claim to put an absolute value on human life. Millions of dollars are often spent to rescue a single individual in peril. But the matter is hardly so simple.
The very same societies that expend millions on rescue operations at the same time refuse to pay a similar price for preventive measures that might avert such tragedies in the first place. As a society, for instance, we accept a certain level of traffic fatalities as being, in some sense, "tolerable." Experts believe that hundreds of lives could be saved annually in Israel by lowering highway speeds, but we have "decided" that the inconvenience entailed would be more than we can bear. The requirement for extensive long-term testing prior to licensing new drugs has largely prevented recurrences of tragedies like the Thalidomide babies of the 1960s.
But strict licensing procedures have costs of their own. They dramatically increase the price of new drugs, in many cases beyond the reach of those most in need of them. In addition, they may delay by years the availability of drugs that could save many lives in the interim.
There are no magic formulas to determine how much money should be allocated to, say, dialysis machines versus money allocated for education. Nor do we possess any calipers capable of measuring the cumulative inconvenience of lower speed limits versus the lives saved. The choices made can be tragic; who will live and who will die often depends on those choices.
They frequently involve decisions about the allocation of scarce resources. And they are inevitably made with imperfect knowledge. It is, for instance, impossible to know with certainty how many lives will be lost or saved by one set of drug licensing regulations versus another.
What is crucial, however, is to identify the nature of the choices being made, and not to focus on only one side of the equation. A society that has lost the capacity to recognize costs beyond the most immediate and obvious is a society in deep trouble. Lebanon presents Israelis with a classic example of a tragic choice.
As Labor MK Ephraim Sneh has bluntly put it, the question is whether we can "afford 24 young lives a year in Lebanon. By framing the issue that way, Sneh is not showing less sensitivity to the cost involved than those who clamor for unilateral withdrawal. Rather, he is suggesting that there are two sides to the equation, and both have to be carefully weighed.
In the very short-term, it is clear that we could save those 24 lives by an immediate withdrawal from Lebanon, just as we could cut traffic deaths to zero by outlawing all motorized vehicles. Yet no country is going to return to horse-drawn carriages no matter how many lives would be thereby "saved" by doing so. The resulting economic chaos would likely result in dramatically lowered life expectancy and cost far more life-years than would be saved.
BY the same token, it is by no means certain that a withdrawal from Lebanon, even in the context of a negotiated settlement with Syria, will not pose costs in terms of lives far beyond the benefits. Hizbullah is not under Syria's absolute control. We cannot be certain that Syria could guarantee us respite on the northern border.
Nor is it clear that after regaining the Golan Heights, Syria would have much incentive to do so. The Syrians could simply disavow any responsibility for Hizbullah, confident that Israel would not go to war to retake the Golan - at the cost of thousands of lives - simply because it had been gypped in the bargain. If as a country, we cannot live with 24 deaths a year in Lebanon, than surely the residents of Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya will not tolerate a far smaller number of deaths from Katyusha rockets each year.
Resumed attacks from Lebanon would almost certainly result in a massive exodus from the major urban centers of the North towards the already densely populated center. Israel would contract even further. Recapturing a security zone in southern Lebanon, once we had pulled out, would likely entail a cost in lives many times that now being incurred there annually, and leave us right back where we started.
Yet, if opinion polls are to be believed, a majority of Israelis now appear prepared to pay any price and incur any risk in return for a withdrawal from Lebanon. A narrow majority now claim to support full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a peace treaty with Syria. Agitation for withdrawal from Lebanon has played a primary role in this dramatic reversal in public opinion.
Neither the loss of control over nearly a third of our water supply, at a time when drought conditions are an increasing fact of life, nor our weakened ability to deter aggression by our traditionally most belligerent adversary, nor the loss of one of the few remaining areas where the army can conduct large-scale training operations, are deemed to outweigh the incentives for returning the Golan. The majority is fixated on the 24 annual casualties in Lebanon to such an extent that it is unable to think about anything else. And in this fixation lies perhaps the greatest cost, albeit an intangible one.
Our Arab adversaries increasingly perceive us as a society that has lost its will to such an extent that rational cost-benefit analysis is beyond us. We have shown again and again that we can be spooked. We were spooked by stone-throwing children during the intifada; we are spooked by every hint of the threat4 of renewed missile strikes from Iraq, and we are spooked today in Lebanon.
Just as Hizbullah can already smell victory in having forced the SLA withdrawal from Jezzine, so the Palestinians and Syrians view us as fighters incapable of holding up our guard any longer. Can we be surprised that they continue to boast in all their propaganda ultimate victory, even as we speak of compromise and pray for some modus vivendi?