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Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Death Becomes Her
America's Dysfunctional Relationship with Death

by Clinton Fein

Death Becomes Her Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The outcry resulting from the CBS, 60 Minutes broadcast of Jack Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to Lou Gehrig's Disease patient Thomas Youk, was swift loud and furious. A bright, shining spotlight illuminated the issue of euthanasia as well as journalistic standards. And once again, in the scrutiny that followed, the media demonstrated the confusion and hypocrisy in America's relationship to death. In the shrill piousness that shaped the tortured analysis of their own coverage - we were once again witness to the ill-concealed subjectivity inherent in contemporary American journalism - especially concerning issues defined by morality.

The distinction between mercy killing and doctor assisted suicide is essentially a legal one, and one that places the physician in the position of executing the death rather than orchestrating it. While it is easy for us to digest the notion of trying Jack Kevorkian for first-degree murder, we ought to take a step back and look at the message rather than projecting our collective anxiety about death on to the messenger.

It's all too easy to turn a blind eye to the patient or person suffering and cognitively able to render a judgement as to the quality of the life they are living and over which they, not the government, have a choice. Mr Youk and countless others in his situation encounter this situation all the time. This is not a new phenomenon. A 1998 study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that of the doctors surveyed, as many as one in twenty-one had in fact administered a lethal injection. To charge them or Jack Kevorkian with first-degree murder, a crime ironically punishable by the death penalty, is the equivalent of charging the individual responsible for flicking the switch of an electric chair with murder. Or the individual responsible for actually dropping the sodium cyanide pellets into the sulfuric acid to produce the hydrogen cyanide gas for our gas chambers.

A westernized approach to death is inextricably associated with religion, and our desperate need to believe in an afterlife. Our religions place an unattainably high price on pious virtue, almost impossible sacrifice and unnatural humility. Despite the fundamental goodness of well-meaning people, few of us actually believe we are good enough or worthy enough to make it in an afterlife, and as such, deny looking at death in any meaningful way. Denial is at the very root of our dysfunction.

From rest and sleep, which yet thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more, must low
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul's delivery.

We are struggling with the conflict in our culture, our legislation and our prayers. We revile the notion of abortion - taking the life of an undeveloped fetus, to the extreme point of condoning the killing of doctors that are responsible for "killing the babies". We are willing to vote for, sanction and implement execution procedures, but don't have the guts to watch our actions at work. We cannot even look at what we are responsible for creating - or in this case destroying.

Surely if we as a nation are willing to put people to death, we should witness the consequences of our actions, and be bold enough and confident enough of our convictions to show and tell our children what we are capable of, and indeed carrying out. If we are so ashamed or so repulsed by our own actions, perhaps it's time to rethink our relationship to death and the hypocrisy of our pseudo-morality.

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell

While the image of him with his steely eyes, defined cheekbones and square jaw, lifting a needle appear to have arisen from the pages of a somewhat cliched Hollywood script, Jack Kevorkian is as easy to demonize and fear as Timothy McVeigh. Added of course, with a sympathetic touch of the recently executed Karla Faye Tucker. Despite the media's all-too-sudden aversion to the visual depiction of death, the occasional freeway suicide notwithstanding, we are as ghoulish and as sick as the fantasy we place on the publicity crusader. Jack Kevorkian understands the media's hypocrisy and plays them like a cheap and out of tune violin.

The Kennedy and King assassinations caught on film desensitized America to the visual depiction of death in the early sixties. By the time film director Oliver Stone recreated John Kennedy's assassination, anything less than the high drama audiovisual assault would have been as dull as an impeachment hearing in the nineties.

The media outcry that resulted from Kevorkian's latest stunt saw the moral indignation of editors and journalists, condemning and judging 60 Minutes for broadcasting a death on television, or being willing to buy into Kevorkian's cause. The very media that feed us death every minute of every day on every show, whether fact or fiction.

We sat glued as little JonBenet's sex murder, too horrific to contemplate, spawned yet another generation of talking heads to be trained to ultimately pontificate on the President's sex life. We swallow up every grisly detail of the dripping knives and smoking shotguns, triumphed in delight at the death sentence of Tim McVeigh, because he killed a hundred and sixty nine innocent people. Or gleefully followed OJ's Bronco down a LA freeway and poured over Nicole Brown Simpson's autopsy photos. We willingly chased Andrew Cunanan across America on his grisly killing spree, all the way up until his dramatic death in a Miami-docked houseboat. And oh, how we cheered with the live, family friendly beaming of a visually spectacular war game that not only resulted in a rating sweep that defined CNN, but killed a mere estimated three hundred thousand people in the Persian Gulf.

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

The media is able to voice such hypocrisy because the revenue model is tried and true. And while it's easy to blame the media, they, as sure as there is an afterlife, know their audience. The audacity is mind boggling, that we as a nation, and specifically the moralizing hypocritical media are offended by Thomas Youk's death. Jack Kevorkian's methodologies are not quite as excessive as the media will have us believe. This very web site, annoy.com, in many ways employs similar tactics. Our deliberately overly offensive provocations that have landed us in the Supreme Court of the United States are nothing more than a call to dialog, by any means necessary. Preferably through legislation to bring attention to an issue that the media are too arrogant, comfortable, fearful and lazy to pay attention to.

Jack Kevorkian is nothing more than the ultimate denial mechanism. And we, in our blissful willingness to absorb everything the media feeds us, seem to have no problem playing God in the creation process, spawning malnutrioned children onto an abusive, overpopulated planet. We treat people with hatred, contempt, degradation and violence, denying them food, medicine and healthcare, and all too often killing them when we don't like them, their views or their actions. We will not, however, give them the right to take their lives and dignity into their own hands - to put an end to unbearable pain and suffering - with the assistance of a qualified physician. And that, unfortunately, is our ultimate hypocrisy.


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