Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Politics of Death"

There are no punchlines with this one.

Death is one of only two things that all persons are guaranteed to experience once in their life, along with birth. Sex isn’t a given, love isn’t a given; pride, hope, joy, happiness, sadness, faith or friendship offer no guarantees that one will ever experience them. Only birth and death are promises always met.

Birth is the overture of life, full of the promise of what has yet come. But death, which comes at the very end, signifies the finality of years or decades of living, turning a once-vital person into memories shared by those around her. Death is the final note of life’s symphony and is, by nature, the more dramatic of the two. And as the most dramatic guarantee life has to offer, it has become arguably the most contentious subject in politics; capital punishment, assisted suicide, abortion, and euthanasia are discussed at every political level and numerous other subjects – stem cell research, disease, drunk-driving laws, and drug addiction all have the idea of death as part of the vast discussions that accompany them.

On very few of those issues do conservatives and liberals agree. Certainly no one in their right mind thinks that drunk driving is a good idea and most everyone supports the government and private industry’s work to eradicate diseases as best they can. But the hot-button issues continue to divide the country and sadly, both sides seem to be rooted in inconsistent thinking.

At first glance, the conservative position is remarkably inconsistent: pro-life, pro-death penalty, and anti-assisted suicide. They claim that their moral values support human life, and they do – some of the time. According to pro-life thought, the moment that one little sperm wins the Great Race and one little cell divides inside a woman’s womb, that is a human life, by definition an “innocent.” Conservative thought says that that life must be protected, regardless of what the mother believes. Also apparently “innocent” are those sick and elderly who wish to die – usually because of inescapable pain, but those people, conservatives believe, must be allowed to live their lives fully – no matter how much pain they are in and how much they wish to die. The belief is that life is precious, regardless of how sick a person is.

However, if a person is convicted of a capital crime – regardless of actual innocence or guilt – that person is no longer given the same rights as others. Most conservatives, but not all, support capital punishment, even though study after study after study has demonstrated that not all those convicted of a capital crime are actually guilty. Capital punishment is final; there is no reprieve for those who are killed.

In essence, a pair of cells in a womb is an innocent, a great-grandmother writhing in constant pain is an innocent, but a black man falsely convicted is no longer an innocent, and deserves to die. It is a judgment call at best, given proper spin by the conservatives: sweet little Baby Johnny and dear old Aunt Petunia should live, but that nasty fellow in Cell Block E must die.
Unfortunately, the liberals are no better and are as inconsistent. Their position is generally pro-abortion (I refuse to call it pro-choice; those that tend to use that term are often the ones who prefer that others don’t get to make choices of their own), pro-assisted suicide, and anti-death penalty. In other words, killing a fetus is good. Killing a sad old woman is good. But killing a man who killed thirteen people at a dinner party is a bad idea. Even if the man was found with a bloody axe, a head in his hand, and confessed his crime in great detail, they still believe it’s bad to kill him. It’s all in the spin, and the liberals do not spin this as well as the conservatives do, and their position takes on a more negative light. They come across as savage, willing to kill innocents for selfish reasons, but also as “light on crime,” willing to house criminals for decades who probably do deserve to die.

There is no way to make these belief systems consistent in and of themselves and frankly, I’m not sure there should be. What these discrete systems of beliefs demonstrate is how vastly different in thinking we all are. Neither all conservatives nor all liberals believe everything that their groups seem to espouse, but many do. This to me says that perhaps death – and the subjects that touch heavily on death – should be given more respect by both sides. Instead of calling the pro-abortion types “baby killers” or calling the pro-capital punishment supporters “murderers,” maybe at some point our society will evolve to the point where our beliefs on death can be respected, not only by those who agree with us, but more importantly, by those we disagree with. I’d like to think that, as a people, this is one thing we are all capable of doing.

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