Monday, March 20, 2006

Death in a Cold Light

TODAY'S HEADLINE. I think there's some anniversary or other that's going to be getting a lot of attention in the next few days, and I didn't want to talk about that because everyone else will. So I thought I'd talk about something else instead. How about death? Did you know that last year in the United States 2,310,000 people died? (This doesn't include approximately 2 million abortions, but that's another topic for another day.) The way the World Factbook keeps track, that's 8.25 people per thousand, which sounds better than the big number, but gives every U.S. citizen a higher chance of dying this year than of ever winning a million dollars in the lottery. There will be about 6,300 winners of the death lottery in this country every single day of 2006. That's a little over 260 an hour and over 4 per minute. Since you started reading this, between four and six of your fellow citizens have handed in their dinner pails.

Why should you care? Because we're all going to win this lottery eventually. No exemptions. But that's exactly why we tend to avoid paying much attention to the facts. If they wanted to, the New York Times editors could headline the front page of their paper every day, "6,300 Deaths Yesterday in Continuing U.S. Health Catastrophe." But they don't do that because you don't want them to and would probably stop buying their paper if they did.

Collectively, we've all developed a great workaround for this gruesome unreported story. We do ask for, and receive, plenty of stories about death, but always in a way that makes it seem somehow avoidable or controllable for the most of us. Local television news programs play a very active role in keeping death alive, so to speak, as an important news story. While they may overlook such trivialities as reporting seriously or in depth about local politics, they work hard every day to show us deaths by auto accident, arson, homicide, corporate negligence, and, of course, smoking. And they try not to give us big numbers, but individual faces -- of the schoolgirl slain by the drunk driver, the toddler who couldn't be rescued from the rowhouse fire, the cop gunned down on a domestic disturbance call, the hooker raped and murdered on the corner, the chemical plant worker who succumbed to toxic fumes, and the contemptible old lady who continued to sneak cigarettes at the nursing home even after her lung surgery. What's great about this kind of death reporting is that it almost always gives us something to blame, whether it's bad behavior or criminals or insufficient government protections. And there are even kinds of death that make us feel somehow immune -- the celebrity skydiving accident, the newest pre-teen killer drug, the fatal crimes and diseases of passion our own love lives aren't imaginative enough to encounter, and the heroic deaths of those who do brave things we would never contemplate. The illusion of death as a syndrome of the very good and the very bad.

What we experience in the news shows and obit columns is a steady drip-drip-drip of death that makes it seem like something we can put away by tossing the daily paper in the trash or changing the channel. This is punctuated by another kind of relieving death story -- the Dramatic Total.  School Shooting Claims 16 Dead. 10 Lost in WV Mining Disaster. 21 Dead or Missing in Tornado Rampage. 9/11 Death Toll Passes 3,000. New Milestone in Iraq: 2,000 Killed in Action. The Dramatic Total can be a balm even on foreign soil, as long as the numbers rise by an order of magnitude: 100,000 Drowned in Tsunami. Saddam's Mass Graves Yield 200,000 Bodies. African Genocide Estimated at 500,000 Victims. 1 Million North Koreans Believed Dead from Starvation. What's so wonderful about these kinds of stories is that they give us a safe way of expressing outrage about death. We can be angry at death, indignant, resentful, and self-righteously superior to its instigators if not the actual state it represents. Which is another way of pretending that death doesn't have us by the throat -- each and every one of us -- all the time.

You see, what  all these acceptable stories are about is keeping death a stranger. The chemistry is altered when death becomes an intimate. The math changes. We stop calculating in terms of raw longevity and begin assessing life in terms of quality, accomplishment, spiritual attainment and legacy. Time fades into the illusion it always was. The field of psychology has mangled this natural transition into a forced death march through the so-called phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Everything I've described so far is about the denial of death. It's something that happens to others, the ones who are weak or excessive or over/under-privileged or unlucky or stupid. It can't happen to me because I'm good or moderate or pacific or important or altruistic. Lies. Death comes to everyone. Every one.

All but the final phase described by psychologists are simply different flavors of denial driven by fear. We cycle through all of them all the time, just as we react in turn to each of the artificially framed stories told us by the media. The death of someone completely unlike us feeds our denial. The Dramatic Total arouses our anger. Death by institutional policy or neglect makes us feel we can bargain away the danger. The failure of such bargaining induces depression. Throughout, death remains the terrifying stranger whom we deny and turn away from at every opportunity.

There are really only two "phases," denial and acceptance. Achieving acceptance of death is one of the primary purposes of all major religions. Why is it that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and all the other great faiths work so hard to eliminate the fear of death, to describe it as a rite of passage rather than an end? Because like all unconquered fears, the fear of death distorts our values and creates a self-defined prison. Lives that should be lived become instead a kind of bunker in which we hide and peek out at the world through ragged slits in our fortifications against death.

The irony of our great post-modern secularization is that it has stolen away our avenues to acceptance. When we scoff at the Christian heaven -- or the Muslim heaven -- we are reducing our own power to establish values and accomplishments that are more rewarding than mere survival. In the process we surrender strength and authority to those who have overcome their fear of death, even if we feel nothing but contempt for their spiritual logic. That's why the Islamists are willing to die by the thousands without pausing in their mission to count up the dead, and we cannot take a single step to stop them without counting, and recounting, and adding up, and performing all the other masturbatory math of the most cowardly primitives who didn't even have the guts to venture out of their caves.

Here are the facts we don't want to hear about in the media. We are all going to die, and the overwhelming majority of us are going to die from heart disease (28.5%), cancer (22.8%), stroke (6.7%), emphysema (5.1%), and accidents (4.4%), to the tune of more than 1.5 million a year. Another 70,000 of us will die from diabetes every year, 62,000 from flu or pneumonia, 55,000 from Alzheimer's, and about 115,000 from various other diseases. That's more than 5,000 a day, 80 percent of the total. The wild hope of curing any or all of these diseases is merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If we eliminate these ills, we'll just die from something else.

The funny thing is that wars, even terrible wars, kill far fewer victims. In the U.S., World War II -- from December 7, 1941 to May 15, 1945 -- killed a little under 500 troops per day. The Iraq War has killed just over two troops a day. And amazingly enough, the country of Iraq, even in the midst of its horrifying warfare, has a lower annual death rate than the United States -- 5.5 per thousand versus our 8.25 per thousand, while the arrogantly neutral (and safe) Europeans have a higher rate than both -- 10.1 per thousand. Do you begin to see the distortions of denial?

So what are we really doing when we insist that the price of confronting Islamism and liberating an oppressed people in another country is too high? We are saying that nothing is more important than physical survival for our allotted three score years and ten (or twenty). Can this really be true? No risks are worth taking to defend our values, our way of life, the prodigious accomplishments of our forebears from those who would ransack and overrun us. Would you really prefer to hide in an empty concrete bunker for the remaining decades before you, too, join the list of 100 percent casualties by expiring from heart attack, cancer, or stroke? And does this determination really make you feel superior to those who have so transcended the fear which grips you that they believe a short, noble life offered up in service to you is better lived than a 50-year game of hide-and-seek with cancer? Do you honor them -- or yourself-- by scorning their bravery as contemptible beside your pusillanimity? Or are you simply using them as one more gambit in your lifelong game of denial? Isn't it all really about you?

Try this as you fulminate and rage about the unacceptable daily casualties in Iraq. Each morning, remind yourself that more than 6,000 of your fellow Americans will die today -- feel the gush-gush-gush of death. Remind yourself that you, too, are absolutely going to die, probably enfeebled, probably in pain. Ask yourself if there is anything you'd like to do in the time left to you that is more important than trying not to confront the inevitable fact of your own demise. Anything?

If you can't find an answer, get ready to live in the Islamist world. They are not afraid of death, at least not as much as you. And they're just dying to kill you.

UPDATE 03/21/06. The 'Dramatic Total' tantrum surrounding the third anniversary of the Iraq War is in full cry. Stay abreast of the details with Michelle Malkin.

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