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The Denial of Death | The Nation

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The Denial of Death

The botched executions in Baghdad have revived public discussion of thesordid "science" of killing people in a "humane" manner. Saddam Husseinwas taunted by his executioners as they pulled the trap door on him.This past weekend, when Saddam's half-brother and former secret policechief met the same fate, the hangman's noose tore his head off.

Oh, well, he IS dead. Wasn't that the point?

Civilization has progressed on this delicate question over manycenturies and none has been more conscientious than America. The USgovernment does now and then declare a public need to kill people, butis always mindful to do so in ways that avoid unnecessary pain andsuffering. The victims are presumed to be grateful for this but,unfortunately, not around to express their views.

The Catholic Church, remember, used to burn heretics at the stake inthe Middle Ages--a spectacle of suffering that instructed the populaceon the importance of adhering to the true faith. The French guillotinewas regarded as a technological improvement--swift and surgicallycertain. American industrial prowess took up the challenge and advancedfurther with the electric chair and gas chamber. These methods alsoproved imperfect. The electric chair sometimes fried the person beforeit killed him. Enlightened jurisdictions adopted an ostensiblynonviolent technique, fatal injections.

Now our "allies" in Iraq have dragged Americans back to consider therude calculations involved in hanging. John Burns, the New YorkTimes correspondent who sometimes injects droll Britishunderstatement in his brilliant dispatches, reported that the death of BarzanIbrahim al-Tikriti "appeared to have gone seriously awry." Indeed, helost his head--a vicious practice we abhor when Muslim fanatics employit.

With the thoroughness one expects from the Times, Burns went onto explain the long-established tradition for calculating the "drop"weight of the hangee's body with the proper length of rope needed tosnap the person's neck without also separating his head from his body.As Iraq develops into a more advanced democracy, it will perhapsimprove on this.

All of this puts me in mind of Woody Allen's famous distinction on thebusiness of death. "I'm not afraid of dying--I just don't want to bethere when it happens."

Exactly. That is the American position. It is the preciousness ofAmerica's niceties that mocks our moral posturing. As a nation, we killpeople--lots of them--both in war and on the home front. But, mind you,only for good reasons. And always with surgical precision. We haveassembled massive killing power and will use it, but always withsincere respect for those made dead.

Our advanced technologies allow us to sanitize this process--keep itdistant and avert our eyes from what's really happening. "Shock andawe" bombing is our high-altitude tool for teaching others to respectAmerican power. Dead civilians, including dead babies, accumulateas the regrettable "collateral damage" not to be confused with ournoble good intentions. The other side--lacking our advancedsensibilities--simply kills people, butchers them in old-fashioned waysthat we find shocking.

America has a twisted thing about "death." The mass culture playsendlessly with death as if it were a popular video game (actually,death is a wildly popular video game). Yet we are strangely squeamish.Don't let the children see the blood. Don't slaughter in disrespectfulways. Above all, don't show us the bodies afterwards.

Our nation would be healthier, I think, if we put aside the moralpretensions and looked straight at the reality. Let's see the death anddying--all of it--both at home and in war. The dead convicts, the deadIraqis and--yes--the dead Americans who went off to liberate thosepeople from their backwardness. We are tough people. We could take it,couldn't we?

Years ago, I saw a celebrated newspaper photograph from theLouisville Courier Journal. It was taken in 1938 and recordedthe last public hanging in Kentucky, held in a small country town.People in those days used to gather in the courthouse square and watch.The photographer (his name alas forgotten) did something brilliant. Atthe final moment, as the trap door opened and the body fell, he wheeledaround with the camera and shot a picture of the spectators, men andboys. Their faces were twisted in shock, slack-jawed andcontorted--made horrible themselves by the knowledge of what they saw.

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