It has been hard not to think about death recently. Not because of MH370, but because of two very different events: the anniversary on Tuesday of Margaret Thatcher's passing, and the BBC's haunting documentary, Life on Death Row. In both cases I have been torn between sympathy, for the political arguments of Thatcher's opponents and the victims of the horrific crimes that form the prelude to our grim series, and unease at the celebration, even fetishization, of a person's death. However, this post is not about justifying my stance on 'the ultimate punishment', but rather about why we might want someone dead. This question suddenly became pressing for me last month, upon another's death.
When I learned that Fred Phelps, the erstwhile leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, was dying, I couldn't help it. Despite myself, a faint wave of joy, that there would be one fewer destructive bigot in the world, washed over me. How can this be? How could I go from imploring my television screen to recognize the fundamentality of human life, shouting at it that "justice can only be built from the absolute recognition sameness of the other, and therefore our mutual inviolability!"... to breathing a sigh of relief, a contented smirk crossing my face?
And yet the other extreme seemed to me as repellent. Upon his eventual death, the liberal press was full of writers claiming to forgive Phelps. Queer writers especially (homosexuality being the obsessive object of his church's ire) forswore celebration, even withholding critique, the spectre of Thatcher's death parties and their subsequent condemnation perhaps weighing heavily on their minds. Forgive him? Excuse him? Call him a victim of his own context? It was perverse.
But there is just enough space between these two extremes for nuance: slender, uncomfortable, and delicate, but space there is. While thinking about living people who enrage me, and who elicit death threats from others, Katie Hopkins sprang to mind. It became clear that while I am almost viscerally angered by the bile she writes, I am more annoyed that what she writes is published. There will always be idiots, and idiots seldom change their minds, but what knocks the wind from me is that she is listened to.
My death wish for Fred Phelps derived from my own sense of impotence. From the ridiculous to the sublime, Katie Hopkins all the way to Margaret Thatcher, the real problem is the political discourse in which these voices are situated. Short-term, relativistic, amoral in a fashionably postmodern way, the media landscape of the late 20th and early 21st century makes it impossible to Just Say No to bad ideas. A strange economy of truth exists, whereby anything might be 'right' as long as enough people believe it. This produces an absurd situation where any old bang-on-a-can pundit, such as Hopkins or Phelps--people with zero expertise, whose thoughts would otherwise have no currency--are legitimated alongside the truly relevant thinkers and leaders. There is no ridding ourselves of these people; they are incompetent, but they are powerful. Novara media's post-mortem on Thatcher highlighted the many failings of her policies--nine budget deficits, stratospheric unemployment, a major recession, national budgets only balanced on the back of asset sales and striking oil, not to mention enormous civil discontent. And yet she was the Prime Minister of England, and the politics of which she was the architect still form the foundation of the economic landscape today--as if we didn't already know they didn't work! And it's not as though Phelps was a complete pariah. Sure, some people called him an idiot, but by no means everybody. From ordinary members of the public all the way to congresspeople, millions shared his views on homosexuality, at least to some extent. It is a system wherein ideas like Phelps's are considered at all, rather than being thrown out without consideration, that gives rise to a calm debate in the British Parliament over the pros and cons of gay rights--as if there is any debate to be had!
It is our underlying lack of faith in progress that leads to these bizarre, immoral death wishes. Phelps, Hopkins, Thatcher--different people, different wrongs, but all united by the fact that there remains no means of processing them under the current system. And if we are not willing to accept their voices as permanent fixtures in political discourse, then the only alternative is to remove--or to celebrate the removal--of those individuals themselves. Like the victims' families on Life on Death Row (although with much less justification, I hasten to add) we are unable to conceive of a productive, hopeful outcome from the situation, all things being equal. So we gleefully accept the idea of our opponents' mortality, even craving their death.
But this is still an immoral position, 'othering' our enemies in a way that makes their death acceptable--the same strategy that is used to justify the death penalty, the same reason I oppose it. Moreover, it is displaced rage, unproductive: we actually rage against the machine. Little wonder those of us who tuned in to the BBC saw the victims' relatives underwhelmed and little-comforted after watching their tormentors' executions: in real terms, nothing was achieved.
I see no reason to forgive Phelps, or Thatcher, particularly when their actions continue to have such negative effects on my life and the lives of others. But there is no need to celebrate their deaths: it is a short-term, transferred joy, which ignores the fact that none of our problems are going away. Both courses accept the system as it is: one excuses, one demonizes. It is ineffective. Hate the sin, hate the sinner, sure--but kill the system. When the institutions that legitimated these people and those like them dies, then we might have something to celebrate.