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Saturday, March 25, 2006 

Dying to survive.

Karen Armstrong's moving piece on her mother's lingering death is a sharp reminder of the way society deals with what now seems to be the very last taboo yet to be broken: leaving this mortal coil.

In a world where youth, and with it, sex, has become fetishised, not only has growing old itself become something to fear, but death has become the unspoken ultimate horror. This seems in stark contrast to less than a century ago, when whole towns of young men went off to the trenches, never to return. What has changed since then has not only been the advent of modern medicine, but a sea change in the attitude towards life itself. This may well be because there has been no mass cull of human lives during the baby boomer generation, at least not in the west. There has been no Spanish influenza, no holocaust or war which has extinguished millions of lives in what now seems like a stroke. Famine here is a thing of the past; death, while still as certain as taxes, has been made to behave.

As well as not experiencing a mass loss of life, few actually face the stench of death. A slightly larger but still small number face death, or face up to, but are then pulled away, their time not yet come. As a result, our understanding and resistance to people dying has been both diluted and heightened. The modern existential problem is that of not being able to understand the motives or reasoning of the suicide bomber. Sure, we can make fun of them, question what makes them tick (groan) and condemn them for their final fit of selfish pique which takes innocents and those not in same mindframe along with them, but very few of us can sympathise or indeed, even be allowed to. To do so is to offend the relatives of the victims, or give credence to their twisted, wicked, mistaken ideology.

The suicide bomber is just a piece of the puzzle surrounding our modern take on mortality. The contradictions of the pro-life movement, which vehemently wants to stop what it sees as innocents slaughtered because of the whims of an individual, is usually part of the same far-right wing political movement which is vociferous in defence of capital punishment. Another parallel is those of us who believe in the right of individuals to die with dignity, at a time of their own choosing. Many of those who support such a right are against capital punishment, seeing it not only as an act of revenge, but as legitimised killing by the state which makes us no better than the one sentenced to die for their crime.

The fact, really, is that death just isn't sexy. It can be fetishised and idolized just as anything else, but it will always leave the majority cold. As a result, we seem to be prepared to let a lot of seriously ill people suffer. We hear the heartbreaking cases such as that of Baby MB, who a judge decided should not have life support withdrawn from him, despite doctors describing his life as "intolerable". The baby has type one spinal muscular atrophy which usually kills 80% of babies before they are a year old. He is going to die, yet his parents want him to live, and a judge agrees. Who are we to disagree with his parents wishes, even if the child itself is incredible pain which it cannot show? We hear of cases such as that as Karen Armstrong's, where our loved ones go through months and at times years of pain, with they themselves wishing they were dead, yet we can do nothing to help them towards that cause, even if they tell us they want to die now, for fear of prosecution. It has got worse in Britain since the antics of Harold Shipman, where now doctors are even more cautious in prescribing killer doses of morphine which would relieve the suffering of their patients, even when all parties are able to make such a decision, when they might have done in the past.

The deaths of just below 3,000 people on one day in September, 5 years ago has lead, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of 10 times that number at the lowest estimate in Iraq. Do such figures matter? The position of the US military is still that they don't do bodycounts, yet we know the exact number of the US servicemen who have died since the beginning of the US invasion. (2,482 according to Cryptome.) This perhaps shows the difference in our attitudes to death across the globe. We showered money on Indonesia after the tsunami (it may well have helped that some of "our" number were also the victims), yet we do little to help stop what the US has declared is genocide in Sudan. Having the pictures of the suffering helps us to remember, and what could be more burnt on the memory than what happened on September the 11th? There are no such images from Iraq, except for the opening "Shock and Awe", which had no actual sight of people dying or jumping, just explosions and smoke. The aftermath of suicide bombings is censored (although such images are easy to find if you are so inclined), and even the sight of the coffins of US soldiers returning from Iraq has been stopped from being published or broadcast, lest it affect morale.

Is it time to re-adjust what we think about death? Surely we should not go towards the attitude of the likes of al-Qaida, who claim that we love life while they love death, but there has to be a middle way. Moralists who stop brain damaged women from being allowed to die with dignity should be ridiculed, yet we must accept that many feel abortions are abhorrent. We need laws which allow suffering to be put to an end, but which also protect us from those who wish to deal death on a large scale. None of this can happen without the freedom of the individual to choose their own way, both to live and die, as long as it does not affect the rights or lifestyles which others choose. If that involves offending others sensibilities, so be it.

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