by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - October 23, 2006) The way we respond to death reveals our attitude to life. If we can empathize the death of a child or a peasant in some far-flung field thousands of miles away, we can appreciate the peculiar tragedy of a promise -- a potentiality -- brutally stamped out. If we can experience empathy with the loss of a person whom we do not know, whose name means nothing to us and whom we cannot imagine except as a news item or a short press obituary, we may still retain some sort of understanding about the preciousness, the rarity of that divine gift with which we are all blessed.
But what happens when we are engulfed by death -- when multitudes of The Dead are reported in newspapers and on television as we are sitting down to breakfast or returning home from work? What kind of attrition-of-feeling comes into play when we learn that a half-dozen people have been blown away by a suicide bomber rather than a hundred? Is our notion of death somehow becalmed because there have been fewer deaths where we expected more? Is it the quantity of deaths that has become the measure of our grief? Do we tremble persistently at the idea of 3000 dead but merely shudder momentarily at the death of one innocent child in a foreign marketplace whose life has suddenly been cut short?
One of the consequences of people dying in great numbers is the way it inures us to death, makes it commonplace and un-extraordinary. Its ubiquity saps death of its horror -- just as the daily proximity of death in the Nazi concentration camps made mass slaughter a commonplace -- even, at times, a subject for gallows humor.
In peace time, death is dignified and stately. We conduct our memorial services, write respectful obituaries, bring flowers and indulge in ceremonies of remembrance. Even if death has been brought on by murder or violence, there is always a funeral service where the life which has been extinguished is soberly considered and ceremonially concluded. But in battle, when death is omnipresent, The Dead are hastily disposed of; so much human debris which taunts us in regard to our own mortality and guiltily reminds us that "there, for the grace of God -- or the unpredictability of IEDs -- go we."
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demeaned death -- not only because so many of us feel these were promising young lives callously wasted, but because there are too many deaths to be observed -- to much carnage to clear up, not enough reverential words to apply to piles of corpses who remain faceless. It is a needful defense mechanism for the administration to prevent the returning coffins of dead servicemen and women from being photographed. There is a certain unassailable logic about such a prohibition. If the public is asked on a daily basis to acknowledge the enormity of the deaths brought on by the war, life, given normal limits of endurance, simply cannot go on. It is hard enough at the best of times for life to go on in the midst of death as it did during the Civil War and every World War since, but during plagues, massacres, or incessant carnage, too great a strain is put upon the sensitivities of a battered civilian population. Since every day is a day in which deaths occur, we must set aside every other day for burying the dead, and every third day for mourning them. No sentient civilization can sustain the amount of heartbreak all that demands. Concealment is therefore a useful option; forgetfulness, a valuable anodyne; denial, a necessary means for survival.
In the last act of Shakespeare's Richard III, the victims of the crookback's murderous wrath appear to him in a nightmare the night before his fatal battle. They remind him of their bitter end and force him to acknowledge the enormity of his crimes. Trying to shake off the effects of that horrid dream, Richard says, in part:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree
Throng to the bar crying, "Guilty, guilty!"
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die, no soul will pity me—
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself.
I can imagine a similar kind of nightmare prompting a like meditation from our own commander in chief. It would probably be a recurring nightmare since for us deaths never cease to multiply and the terror, fed by our own terrorism as well as that of our enemies, never abates.
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