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Exploring the death wish

Maruf Khwaja
16 April 2002

Several months ago, a 43-year old quadriplegic woman, black to boot, all alone in the world and virtually entombed in a hospital ventilator, yet in full possession of her senses, appealed to British courts for a licence to die.

The courts were nonplussed. A licence to kill they had heard of – James Bond had one for years and made quite a bit of money from it – but a licence to die? They passed the buck which eventually landed last March in the court of a lady called Elizabeth Butler-Schloss who had her head AND her heart in the right place. She even moved her court, with all its judicial paraphernalia, to the woman’s bedside to hear her in person.

On March 22 she passed a judgment which casts a shadow of doubt on the traditional moral rectitude of those among us who put “the sanctity of human life”, regardless of its quality, well above its merciful termination when that quality has gone and all that the person is left with is a bag of inert flesh and bones.

Butler-Schloss decreed, in effect, that if disease or disability render the hand that would take its owner’s life useless, then it would be permissible for the rational being trapped inside a wasted body to borrow somebody else’s for the purpose. In this particular case it might be the ward doctor’s simply switching off the woman’s life-support machine. Minions of the law who would hang on to your ankles if you tried to do likewise from the top of the Tower of London, would discreetly look the other way, and so one presumes, would the much maligned overseers of Hippocrates’ utterly redundant oath.

The British way, or fog over Europe

Now it is still illegal in Britain, no matter what the circumstances, to kill yourself. Kill your fellow man by all means and all you are likely to get is 14 years with maybe a couple off for “good behaviour”. Die by your own hand and the sentence is summary execution – DIY of course. Yet, for all intents and purposes, it seems that the Dutch Way of facilitating the Final Passage of the incurably ill embodied in "the right to die" legislation two years ago, has, like so much surreptitious immigration, also crossed the channel into this land of overstated opportunity.

And, one might add, of convoluted legal minds, trapped in their self-importance, who insist on treating identical cases differently because that creates procrastination, the engine that normally drives the judicial system in Britain (or everywhere for that matter). I refer of course to the contradiction between the judgment in the case of the 43-year old quadriplegic, and that of another, Diane Pretty, also a rational Englishwoman trapped inside a body destroyed by motor neurone disease and repeatedly, mercilessly denied exit from it. There is only one difference, if you can call it that: namely, the successful quadriplegic would need to know the identity of the person switching off her life support machine, Diane Pretty would. Her husband...hence the denial.

What does the contradiction imply for other quadriplegics in similar predicaments? Which precedent prevails or ought to? Considerable legal and, more importantly, moral confusion prevails.

Other cultures would look abroad for advice and direction. But Brits born and raised on the pedestal of a “higher civilisation” don’t do that too readily, though our Prime Minister, with his frequent trips to Washington, seems to be trying to break the mould. But who knows what kind of advice might emanate from the US on matters such as speeding up slow deaths! The Americans mainly specialise in lightning fast ones, from 10,000 feet up. The history of physician assisted suicide (PAS) in that country points to considerable legal confusion and moral ambivalence. Look what they did to Dr Jack Kervokian, Michigan’s famous Dr. Death of the nineties who was brought to a dead halt when he assisted one too many PASes.

The American Way, we were all reminded, pertains to Life, and hanging on to it whatever the cost, not Death. The Taliban have frequently and slyly alluded to that. In the absence, then, of proper guidance from across the Big Pond on matters of merciful death and cruel life, Brits feel better advised to look to Europe. But when the Dutch Way did arrive, a lot of Lowlands fog rolled over with it. Pray that it disperse quickly for who knows what else might slip in through the alien murk.. The Palestinian Way perhaps?

The Palestinian version

In different cultures, the Death Wish takes different routes to fulfilment. One way might lead, for instance, to the proverbial abyss, the bottomless pit, the unbridgeable chasm. The second, alien to most Westerners, to a paradise where Houris cavort in rivers of milk and honey with mere striplings who blew themselves up just to be with them.

Fantasies of such a paradise are engendered early in most Islamic cultures. As a child I remember hanging on to every word of my grandmother’s description of it – from the age of the residents (17 for females, 33 for males) to the skin of the houris (milky white if you really want to know) as if she had been there and back. But admission to such a wonderful place wouldn’t be free, she would sternly warn. I would have to earn it the hard way – being pious and virtuous.

Martyrdom, on the other hand, offered a shortcut which I stopped fancying when I saw the gory remains of one butchered during the partition riots in India. Yet, indoctrination by oral historians narrating the future as if it were the past, and volumes upon volumes of very vividly written accounts, ensure that the fantasies are deeply embedded in the febrile imagination of young people – especially those in the grip of earthly despair.

In the absence of any hard evidence, the dream of the martyr in waiting is as credible as the nightmare of the atheist dying a slow lingering death. . In the two court cases above, the Death Wish was motivated by a desire to escape from a wasted body and a state of hopelessness engendered by the failures of medical science. For Palestinian human bombs the escape is from a wasteland of human depravity and a perpetual denial of hope engendered by the failures of political science.

It’s true that the Palestinian martyr’s way of departing the mortal world is violent and traumatic, indeed fatal, by intent, for anyone in the vicinity. But both are sudden and swift though the bomb also maims and cripples. In terms of merely dying, it should not take any longer for a person to be blown to smithereens than for another to have a life system switched off. Did it hurt, if it did, how much did it hurt?

Alas, we can only tell each other when we get to the “other side”. The technicalities of the two options are not relevant. What is relevant is the will and motivation of the Death Wisher and its facilitation by those whose turn has not yet come. Would you rather be a human bomb with a cause and go with a bang or a mound of flesh and bones oozing life like puss from a septic wound?

When the blood and gore or the fumigated pine box have been cleared off, what we are left to ponder is the debris of the yardsticks, which heretofore we have used to measure men and matters Has anyone plumbed the depths of despair? Is it possible to quantify or even qualify it with degrees of intensity?

I mean, of course, the despair that comes only with the loss of hope. You don’t have to be Diane Pretty or the Anonymous Lady of the Bedside Court to feel it. Or even a stateless, homeless, jobless Palestinian. Thousands, indeed tens of thousands of us in the affluent West are familiar with the condition. So are hundreds of millions around a world starved of the resources and opportunities necessary for the creation and sustenance of hope.

The culture of greed

The difference between the two options is that while their hopelessness is the legacy of centuries of oppression and exploitation, compounded by poor governance, and the duplicity of “principled” governments, ours is seen increasingly as the product of a regime in denial of its own ideals and propounding the Culture of Greed it inherited and once piously condemned.

It’s a phrase much bandied about, perhaps devalued by overuse. But the culture I am talking about is all pervasive, ubiquitous. In the beginning, no doubt, greed produces a few rich. Eventually they, too, are impoverished for the culture is also all-consuming. Greed is Enron personified. Greed is grabbing what’s not yours. Greed is Israel in the West Bank. Maybe greed is also human bombs in a crowded Jerusalem square personifying the blood lust of their manipulators. Over here in Britain, our brand of greed is unions demanding ten percent more when productivity is ten percent less. Greed is employers using slave, illegally-migrated labour, in strawberry fields and textile sweat shops. Greed is your plumber ripping out a perfectly good boiler. Greed is also the chancellor increasing taxes by stealth. Greed is governments pushing back the pensionable age by five years but refusing to keep or take anyone on when they are 60.

When governments turn to greed as the engine of growth, despair grows faster than hope. Weeding out the unfit turns into mass extinction. The unfit fall by the wayside or are shoved overboard from ships fated to sink as surely as those of us in the sea are doomed to drown. Eventually, in the battle for survival of the fittest, everyone will one day be unfit and fall by the wayside. Everyone will one day be garbage. So, hey mister, while you are still there, will you switch off that damn life support machine?

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