Death Doesn't Really Becomes Us
Not death of the variety brought on by some bloody, chainsaw-wielding inbred sociopath in serious need of some Right Guard or a cerebral cortex-munching zombie with a far too casual sense of how much of her rotting flesh it's ok to leave wherever she goes (although, obviously, I quite enjoy those too), but rather death of the sort that makes me feel that we humans really aren't quite so evolved on the matter. In fact, we tend to reveal a disturbing open embrace of death that makes our zombie friend seem quite the charmer in comparison.
Take for example the open cheering at the earlier GOP presidential candidates debate when the moderator pointed out the number of executions performed in Texas Governor Rick Perry's state. Now the Wall Street Journals' James Taranto, in a column he admitted he was rushed to write (and it shows), attempted to de-gruesomefy the audience's knee-jerk applause at the mere mention of 234 deaths with a rather convoluted set of projections (onto both the audience and the "liberal elite"):
Nowhere did the moderator make the argument that America's death penalty reflected our being more or less authoritarian than any other country. What prompted the applause was the number of deaths:
It seems to us that the crowd's enthusiasm last night was less sanguinary than defiant. The applause and the responses to it reflect a generations-old mutual contempt between the liberal elite and the large majority of the population, which supports the death penalty.
There are, of course, reasonable arguments against the death penalty. But opponents are too resentful at their inability to steamroll over public opinion as if this were Europe or Canada to argue their case effectively. One of their most ludicrous tropes is to liken the U.S. to authoritarian regimes that also practice capital punishment. In reality, as Marshall showed, America still has the death penalty because it is less authoritarian than Europe. Thus whenever someone makes that argument, we feel a tinge of patriotic pride. We believe a similar sentiment lay behind last night's applause.
Brian Williams: Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you . . .The audience didn't even wait for the arguably liberal elitist question: "Have you struggled to sleep?" For all they knew, the question was going to be "How would you advise other governors to improve their death penalty records?" No, the only information they had when they spontaneously cheered was the total number of deaths.
Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?
Any suggestion that they knew the question was going to take an anti-death penalty stance is also biased projection. The question as I heard it was about numbers: with so many executions, how confident are you that innocent people are not being put to death? Of the nine most recent, most convincing cases that an innocent person was executed in the US, 6 of them were in Texas.
Furthermore, the suggestion that there is "a generations-old mutual contempt" between pro- and anti-death penalty citizens (or the fact that the majority of Americans who support the death penalty may be tired of having their morality questioned) is still no reason a presidential candidate shouldn't be asked to clarify their position on an issue that is actively being debated across the country. New Mexico and Illinois both recently repealed capital punishment because their leaders found the systems they had in place faulty. All Williams was asking Perry was whether he has similar concerns about Texas's system. Given the record of his state, it would seem important that both he and the debate audience seriously reflect on the question.
But an even more fascinating/unsettling issue surrounding death has resurfaced in response to the killing of Libya's dictator Colonel Qaddafi. Videos of his humiliating and painful final minutes are all over the internet (I won't point to them [they're disturbing]...but you can find them). Few people feel sorry for a tyrant when they meet a fate relatively more humane than their combined crimes against other people, and yet, it's not pleasant to be reminded of just how primal we are as creatures. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in a riveting essay in today's New York Times, we seemly can't help but feel that "Dictators Get the Deaths They Deserve":
Despite brandished phones and pistols, there was something Biblical in the wild scene [at Qaddafi's death], as elemental as the deaths of King Ahab (“the dogs licked up his blood”) and Queen Jezebel (thrown off a palace balcony). It was certainly not as terrible as the death of the Byzantine emperor Andronicus I, who was beaten and dismembered, his hair and teeth pulled out by the mob, his handsome face burned with boiling water. In modern times, it was more frenzied than the semi-formal execution, in 1989, of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, but not as terrible as the ghastly lynching, in 1958, of the innocent King Faisal II of Iraq (age 23) and his hated uncle, who were supposedly impaled and dismembered, their heads used as soccer balls. In 1996, the pro-Soviet former president of Afghanistan, Najibullah, was castrated, dragged through the streets and hanged.Apparently, for we fragile humans, death is not enough to erase the fear that tyrants instill:
Romans were so terrified of the emperor that it was not enough to assassinate him. They wanted to see him dead: fearing it was a trick and lacking cellphone footage, they had to be convinced. The mile-long line of Libyans who were keen to see Colonel Qaddafi’s cadaver in its shop-refrigerator-tomb would understand this perfectly.And perhaps the same can charitably be said of those who applaud record numbers of executions. It's fear that drives them to involuntarily express approval...a sense of relief that one more monster is no longer out there.
Of course, the only thing I personally have less respect for than actual deathmongers are cowards who'd abdicate their civic responsibilities to ensure innocent people are not inadvertently victims of an imperfect system out of simply wanting someone/anyone to convince them they'll make the boogeyman go away.
There are other parts of our baser nature we struggle to conquer and characterize as "civilized" when we succeed. Just because our fear and bloodlust are understandable at times in no way excuses abandoning the harder task of continually struggling to overcome them. We have Halloween and horror flicks as release valves toward that end. We, as a nation, should be ashamed that our people literally cheered any part of the deaths of 234 other individuals. And while it's perhaps understandable that the Libyans brutally butchered Qaddafi' in his final moments, we should recognize what it costs us in terms of higher aspirations as a species to revel in that. Death doesn't become us. Not really.