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Suicide and Historical Loopholes April 7, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Ancient, Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Suicide has proved abhorrent to most spiritual traditions. Certainly, the great monotheistic religions and most of the far Eastern religions have condemned ‘self-murder’: cue lots of pulpit bashing and descriptions of hell or unpleasant reincarnations. This begs the question though of what you can do if you live in 500 BC or 500 AD or 1500 AD and you want to end your life at all costs. Beach was musing on this last night (as you do) and he wondered, human ingenuity being what it is, how individuals have got around these strictures through time. He would be very interested in any other categories or vivid examples: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com At the same time he should say that he writes this well aware of the horrible gravity of these matters and their capacity to blight families and communities; none of what follows is meant to be flippant either to G-K-Chesteron-Flag-of-the-World types or, indeed, to euthanasia ‘enthusiasts’.

i) This doesn’t count. Beach has come across several examples where individuals convince themselves that certain forms of suicide are not really suicide. For instance, if I eat rat poison then clearly I am ending my life and must suffer the eternal consequences. But if I stop putting food and drink in my mouth and I die then I have not ‘done’ anything: at best we can talk of a sin of omission. Curiously the examples of non-suicide by starvation, that he has found, come from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. Not sure what to make of that or its historical background. Naturally many modern just-turn-off-the-machine debates involve similar arguments. It is one thing to fill someone’s veins with poison: another to stop pumping oxygen into the lungs or to take the food tube out of someone who has spent three decades immobile in hospital. An orthodox Catholic would claim, of course, that the difference, in the end, is not a categorical one: though even Beach’s beloved uber-Catholic wife would give up here if we talk about an elderly patient refusing, say, to take medicine.

ii) It wasn’t me. One extreme version of ‘this doesn’t count’ is tricking someone else into killing you. Take ‘a soldier’s death’: remembering countless examples from the eastern front in WW2. The man who does not want to go on living leaps out of the trench and walks towards the enemy firing to be killed moments later. There are some instances of death by cop in the modern United States, one problem with having an armed constabulary: a ‘perp’ pulls a weapon and police officers fire to defend themselves not knowing that they are really being coerced. Then there are even some extraordinary instances from history where a suicide kills an innocent (murder can be forgiven in most religions) so that they can be executed. This became a veritable plague in Denmark in the Early Modern Period. (Thanks to Andy the Mad Monk for this reference and Jason Z for some comments. ) Interestingly the early Christian martyrs had debates on a related question. Was it right to go and give yourself up to the Roman authorities? Or should you sit at home and wait for them to come to you? Christian attitudes to suicide arguably formed in this period in a strong rejection of the first.

iii) Can you help me? The reader will have noted that a lot of this suicide-avoiding-stuff involves loopholes. We’ll have to hope that, if there is an Almighty, He is more interested in the letter than the spirit of the law. Along similar lines one slightly more moral version of the ‘it wasn’t me’ technique is actually negotiating with someone to kill you so the sin is not on your head. A famous historical case of this was Masada where the defenders slaughtered each other by taking lots before the Romans could break through into the inner sanctum: that peculiar reluctance found in some period of not wanting to give your enemy the pleasure of massacring you. Beach, getting fictional, also has a scene from the Three Colours White in mind where much is made of this idea and the ‘murderer’ succeeds  – the scene is extraordinarily moving -  in giving the suicide a renewed will to live. It is interesting that in many cases couple suicides involve the partners ‘helping’ each other, almost as if there is a desire (unconscious or otherwise) to avoid putting your own hand on yourself.

iv) I ended my life but to save others. This is the category for those who suspect that, contrary to what was said above, the Almighty (always granting His existence) is more interested in the spirit than the letter of the law. There are, after all, cases where an act of suicide should actually help the world: depending naturally on our appallingly limited human viewpoints of what ‘help’ means. This might include the suicide of a Woolwich cadet described in an A.E.Housman poem who ends his life because he is worried he is going to damage himself and others: he was presumably homosexual at a time, late 19 cent, when this was unacceptable.  This argument is passionately used as a justification for suicide bombing by some Islamists. An uneasy Biblical ‘precedent’ is Samson who brings down the temple on the heads of himself but also the Philistines: the same Samson praised by the normally grumpy Paul in his letters. Altruistic suicide might very reasonably be used to describe the death of Bruno Fanciullacci the Italian resistance fighter in the last war who hurled himself from an upper storey window to avoid torture and indiscretions at the hands of the Gestapo, arguably saving tens of lives.  Thinking about this Beach once had a fascinating discussion with a member of Opus Dei who argued that, by this definition, Christ himself had committed suicide. Discuss.