It is an odd convergence that has haunted the past few weeks–that trio of deaths, President Gerald Ford, James Brown and Saddam Hussein–suspended between Christmas and New Year’s, an eerily bright full moon overhead. There was something trancelike about the weeklong circling of caissons, the sequence of funerals: three very subdued proceedings for Ford, three over-the-top ones for Brown and no visible ceremony at all for Saddam, just the loud mocking of hooded executioners as he was flung to swing hanging in the darkness of a deep pit.

I’m bothered by that feeling of trance; there is something rather numb inside me at the moment, something that does not know how to reconcile all the degrees of separation among these three lives, these three deaths. The rituals of respect or disrespect accorded to each of these symbolic figurations–the decent and forgiving man, the proud and loud man, the bad man–represent a spectrum of who we are as Americans. The most complicated of these is clearly the death of Saddam Hussein, which, while not officially ordered by our government, is nonetheless the terrible denouement of one fantastically wrongheaded decision after another on the part of the Bush Administration. The death of Saddam, with its timing on a Sunni holy day and its casual volley of catcalled humiliation, seemed almost calculated to turn a tyrant into a martyr.

Let me state what ought to be obvious: I am not defending Saddam Hussein’s murderous past. When serial killer Ted Bundy was executed years ago, most Americans experienced a jolt of revulsion upon seeing small crowds gathered outside the prison to picnic and hold up signs rejoicing in his death. Sixteen years later, when pictures of Saddam’s corpse were replayed endlessly on Fox to the accompaniment of the unbridled exultation of its shock jocks, how sad to see a majority of Americans passively insuring Fox’s high ratings by watching this ghoulish spectacle. Is there not an ugly resonance with the postcards of public lynchings that used to be circulated during the time of Jim Crow?

While in these doldrums, I received holiday greetings from an old friend and law school classmate, Cynthia Cannady, who expressed perfectly the apprehension I was having trouble putting into words. Her letter helped me pinpoint the way sensationalism actually dulls our capacity to feel at all.

“I have to express my views on the recent events in Iraq,” she wrote. “In recent months, even Newsweek used the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ to describe the killings of Sunnis by death squads linked to the Iraqi government, especially the Interior Ministry. The number of Iraqis killed since the beginning of this invasion is upward of 650,000. Every day there are new reports of civilians kidnapped and killed, by men often using official cars and in government uniforms. News reports tell us that there is a conscious policy of killing Sunnis because of their organized resistance to the Maliki government, with professors and professionals the frequent targets. Ethnic cleansing! Who installed this government?

“Now we see the grisly reports of Saddam Hussein’s execution after a deeply flawed trial during which three of his defense counsel were assassinated, and the judge was changed three times because the first two judges apparently did not find the process acceptable. CNN and Fox broadcast the opinions of various legal and political ‘experts’ who implied that of course the trial was fair by Middle Eastern standards, that this is the ‘justice’ Saddam ‘deserves.’ Does that mean that some wrongdoers get a higher order of justice, whereas others can simply be tried by hearsay, their lawyers picked off by assassins, in a court run by judges who are literal extensions of the political branch?

“But this is not all that is making me so sad as we close this new year. It is that we have become so sedated, so obsessed, so afraid that we cannot question. It is not acceptable to speak out, or even to cry out. We are being systematically dehumanized by endlessly watching the hangmen in hoods pushing Saddam Hussein to the gallows. One can only wonder why it was so important to kill Saddam right around the time when the number of US troops killed in action reached 3,000. Or why the killing took place so soon after the release of the Baker Report, when Bush was pushing for a ‘surge’ in troop levels for reasons that are far from clearly defined.

“The extra elite shopping center here in Palo Alto is in its post-Christmas glory. I went shopping and bought too many clothes. Lost in the music and colors and textures, I felt joy and pleasure. Then I remembered, and the images of death and destruction revisited me. What has happened to us is terrible. We have become insensate. Before we can start anew, we have to want to see what is happening and claim American ideals as our own. We have to stop talking only about mortgages and movies, interest rates and insider trading, SUVs and iPods. We have to start engaging with the difficult matter of political murder. When Ceausescu and his wife were dragged out into the street in Bucharest and shot, did we think that was OK? Are we any different from the mobs that cheered when Marie Antoinette was dragged into the Place de la Concorde and decapitated? Is it all right for us to use agents to kill the former President of Iraq, however wrong he was? Do we think that news clips showing hooded men putting a big rope around Saddam Hussein’s neck is consistent with our humanity?

“What has happened to us is a violation of our being. And we do not even seem to know it. Yes, there are numberless victims in Iraq. But we are victims, too. What is being killed is our ability to care about what happens to other people. We think we can just go on with our private lives, but we can’t take back what we have purchased.

“I wish us all a new year filled with happiness, but also with the ability to grow older wisely, including seeing clearly the violence and death that is with us at this moment. My illusions are gone, but my hope is not.”