Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Once More Unto the Breach: The Right to Die - Again

Academic journal article Issues in Law & Medicine

Once More Unto the Breach: The Right to Die - Again

Article excerpt

I live in one of those rare enclaves in America, an academic town, a place that is in America but not quite of it. It is in places of this kind that one was more likely to encounter that macabre spectacle that took place in my own town of Amherst shortly after the military action began in the Persian Gulf. A young man, near thirty, apparently distressed by a war that was understood and supported widely in the country, decided to make his own response by engaging in an act of self-immolation on the town common. That evening the charred ground was marked off in a perimeter of lights, and two days later students planned to assemble on that spot to mark the death of this young man and express their opposition to the war. Before the meeting, as the sentiment was building, I addressed some stem words of warning to my own students, who were collected in a large class. For what seemed to be building was a movement to consecrate this ground, and in consecrating it, to honor an act of self-murder.

A year earlier a promising student, nineteen years old, had hanged himself, apparently in a seizure of depression, and no one had sought to make a shrine of his place of suicide. In this case, the act of self-immolation drew on a precedent of distinctly political acts, and it was assumed that the suicide was connected with the war. And yet, we still had no inkling of the reasons that moved this young man to make a victim of himself; and without knowing the reasons, we could not possibly know whether his act was animated by an understanding we could honor. Before the Christian era, Plato had taught us, in the Laches, that we could not regard as courageous, or commendable, just any act that showed a striking disregard for one's own life. A captain who squandered the lives of his men in battle, with reckless abandon, could not be counted as courageous. Nor could a soldier who charged up hills merely because he loved the excitement of battle. Lions were aggressive, but they couldn't be regarded as "courageous" because they could not reflect on the ends that justified aggressiveness. In a similar way, we could find soldiers in the Wehrmacht who risked their lives for their country, but they were willing to risk their lives for a regime that was despicable in its character and its ends. As Plato taught in the Laches, we could call someone courageous only if his act of sacrifice proceeded from an understanding of the kinds of ends that truly justified the risk of his life.

It mattered profoundly, then, what the reasons were that moved the young man in Amherst to set fire to himself. If he killed himself out of a despair that Israel would survive the war, that not enough Jews would be killed, then we would probably be reluctant to commend his act or even to describe it as an act of sacrifice. If he were Jewish, and he killed himself over despair about the killing of Jews, we might wonder about the coherence of his act: How could he protest the killing of Jews by killing another innocent Jew (himself), or by having Jews act as their own executioners? The young man in Amherst protested the war in the Gulf, but if we found that his reasons were muddled, wrong, or incoherent, we would not be in a position to say that his act was "justified," in any strict sense, and we would be hesitant, once again, in celebrating his act.

I raised the question with my students of just which tradition of reflection was informing their reactions as they were about to participate in a meeting to consecrate an act of suicide. Most of them had not read the Laches or reflected on the teachings of Plato. Most of them had been raised in families that were nominally Christian or Jewish, but most of them were not instructed in the teachings of their religion on the matter of suicide: namely, that we are not "self-made," nor are we the "owners" of our bodies, and we do not have a despotic license to destroy our own bodies, in an act of willfulness, for reasons that are sufficient simply to us. …

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