The Denial of Death

The botched executions in Baghdad have revived public discussion of the sordid "science" of killing people in a "humane" manner. Saddam Hussein was taunted by his executioners as they pulled the trap door on him. This past weekend, when Saddam's half-brother and former secret police chief 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 many centuries and none has been more conscientious than America. The US government does now and then declare a public need to kill people, but is always mindful to do so in ways that avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. 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 in the Middle Ages--a spectacle of suffering that instructed the populace on the importance of adhering to the true faith. The French guillotine was regarded as a technological improvement--swift and surgically certain. American industrial prowess took up the challenge and advanced further with the electric chair and gas chamber. These methods also proved imperfect. The electric chair sometimes fried the person before it killed him. Enlightened jurisdictions adopted an ostensibly nonviolent technique, fatal injections.

Now our "allies" in Iraq have dragged Americans back to consider the rude calculations involved in hanging. John Burns, the New York Times correspondent who sometimes injects droll British understatement in his brilliant dispatches, reported that the death of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti "appeared to have gone seriously awry." Indeed, he lost his head--a vicious practice we abhor when Muslim fanatics employ it.

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

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

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

Our advanced technologies allow us to sanitize this process--keep it distant and avert our eyes from what's really happening. "Shock and awe" bombing is our high-altitude tool for teaching others to respect American power. Dead civilians, including dead babies, accumulate as the regrettable "collateral damage" not to be confused with our noble good intentions. The other side--lacking our advanced sensibilities--simply kills people, butchers them in old-fashioned ways that we find shocking.

America has a twisted thing about "death." The mass culture plays endlessly 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 disrespectful ways. Above all, don't show us the bodies afterwards.

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

Years ago, I saw a celebrated newspaper photograph from the Louisville Courier Journal. It was taken in 1938 and recorded the 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. At the final moment, as the trap door opened and the body fell, he wheeled around with the camera and shot a picture of the spectators, men and boys. Their faces were twisted in shock, slack-jawed and contorted--made horrible themselves by the knowledge of what they saw.

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