August 7, 2013

Making Use of Suicide: A Response to Mark Shea

(Rembrandt van Rijn, Lucretia. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.)

Mark Shea, a prominent Catholic blogger for Patheos, also writes a column for the National Catholic Register. This week, his column was entitled, “Two High Profile Suicides”. The first, which I take to be the intentional focus of the article, was the suicide of a soldier named Daniel Somers, who served in Iraq and subsequently suffered from PTSD. Mr. Shea quoted the letter in its entirety (you can read it in his article, or here). It is clearly the writing of an intensely depressed man. He describes his body as “nothing but a cage”, and refers to what he is about to do as a “mercy killing”. His last words:

I am free.

I ask that you be happy for me for that. It is perhaps the best break I could have hoped for. Please accept this and be glad for me.

I don’t wish to denigrate Daniel Somers. He was physically, mentally, and spiritually ill. This is the case with many veterans, however, it may be worth noting that there are many veterans who do not suffer from PTSD or related illnesses. Furthermore, many people who suffer from painful physical ailments and/or serious depression do not commit suicide. Depression is not a death sentence. These are sensitive questions, and we ought to avoid painting with a broad brush.

Mr. Shea, after quoting the suicide letter, makes his main point: that torture is wrong, that the Iraq war was unjust, and that those in power made a great deal of money off of the war while destroying the lives of men like Daniel Somers.

I won’t take issue with any of these points. I have my own opinions about the war, and Mr. Shea might be surprised to learn that they probably resemble his more than they do the Catholic neoconservatives that he often attacks. But while I found his statements about these matters perhaps unnecessarily harsh, I won’t take issue with them.

But it’s here that Mr. Shea’s column takes an unforeseen swerve.

Curiously, a search of Crisis magazine shows absolutely no reference to Daniel Somers. Crisis, it will be recalled, was started long ago by Michael Novak, who went to Rome in 2002 to explain to the Pope and Cdl. Ratzinger and the bishops of the world why it was vital the Church ignore just war teaching and get on the ball with the project of bombing Iraq into the bright promise of salvation through democratic capitalist militarism by any means necessary.

The Pope and all the world’s bishops declined to accept Novak’s new theories and Cdl. Ratzinger made clear that “the concept of ‘preventive war’ is not in the Catechism of the Catholic Church“. But that did not, of course, slow down the fertile minds of American “conservative” sophists in simply ignoring the Church with the standard “Prudential judgment means we can do whatever we like” line of argument in imitation of the standard leftist sophist “Primacy of conscience means we can do whatever we like” line of argument.  Indeed, some even managed the pretzel logic feat of claiming that *because* preventive war is not in the Catechism, it is therefore AOK, which is sort of like arguing that *because* the Catechism never specifically condemns cannibalistic murder rituals, they are just fine.  Result: Daniel Somers was sent to his fate and Crisis joins in the total neglect of this man.

Not that Crisis is completely heartless about suicides, of course. For example,here is a piece expressing not merely pity for suicide, but something like a defense of it.

So here’s the fun part: I wrote the article Mr. Shea refers to. It was about the suicide of French historian Dominique Venner, which made secular headlines primarily because Venner shot himself on the altar of Notre Dame Cathedral. Mr. Shea quotes only the beginning of my article, which is his prerogative. But, as the author, I’d like to insist that I gave no “defense” of the act of suicide. I was intrigued with the story partially because the mainstream press had so misrepresented the story: they had painted Venner as some sort of anti-gay marriage nut job. I wanted to explore his motivations, which reminded me, a student of ancient philosophy, of the examples of ancient pagan suicides. My article had nothing to do with questions of just war in general, or with the Iraq war in particular.

Mr. Shea’s attack on Crisis Magazine is perplexing to me, but as I don’t understand his motivations, I won’t comment on them. There seemed to be aspects of the Venner story which would be interesting to intellectual Catholics, which is why I pitched the article to Crisis. If I had seen similar aspects in the Somers case, I might have written about that instead. But I’m not sure why Crisis should be held morally responsible for not running an article about it. Does Mr. Shea also hold the National Catholic Register in contempt because, prior to this piece, they had not covered the suicide of Daniel Somers either?

At first I was bemused by the outrage expressed by Mr. Shea about my article. Bemusement gave way to a bit of distress when Mr. Shea called it a “grotesque puff piece” and asserted that Crisis’ decision to run it was “inexcusable”; but plenty of commenters on the original piece had said similar things, and when you publish on the internet, you tend to develop a thick skin and a healthy sense of humor about your writing ability. There are others who can better defend Crisis against his remarks about Michael Novak and the Iraq war; I honestly don’t know enough to comment. (Full disclosure: Michael Novak was also one of the original founders of the IRD.) However, it does seem like a stretch to say that my article represents the view of everyone involved at Crisis Magazine. It also seems like a stretch to argue that everyone at Crisis Magazine shares the views of Michael Novak.

What I can’t understand is why Mr. Shea felt the necessity to make a martyr of Daniel Somers, while contrasting it with Venner’s “self-murder” and “sacrilege.” It was both of those things, to be sure. But surely, isn’t Mr. Shea doing precisely what he accuses me and Crisis Magazine of doing? He says that Daniel Somers’ death “seems barely culpable”, and that he was “sent to his fate”:

Daniel Somers killed himself in physical and mental agonies as his government abandoned him after his sacrifices and left him in utter desperation.  Venner killed himself because he had a hissy fit about the new neighbors and chose to petulantly throw away God’s gift of life.

Or this:

May men like Daniel Somers, so profoundly hurt and betrayed by rulers deeply unworthy of his patriotism and sacrifice, yet find peace in the merciful arms of Jesus Christ. May Dominique Venner find mercy for his sacrilegious act of self murder.

And to drive home his point, he points to the great example of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who suffered and was martyred at Auschwitz, and says we ought to look to him as an example of greatness rather than “the pathetic likes of Venner”.

St. Maximilian Kolbe is one of the great saints of the 20th century, in my mind. There is no comparison to be had between him and either of these suicides. So why the red herring? Why does Mr. Shea feel the need to exalt one suicide as heroic (which is what he accuses me of doing) and relentlessly mock and degrade the suicide of another war hero betrayed by his government? What about Venner’s “patriotism and sacrifice”? Why absolve one man and condemn another?

Dominique Venner said in his suicide note,

I am healthy in body and mind, and I am filled with love for my wife and children. I love life and expect nothing beyond… However, in the evening of my life, facing immense dangers to my French and European homeland, I feel the duty to act as long as I still have strength. I believe it necessary to sacrifice myself to break the lethargy that plagues us. I give up what life remains to me in order to protest and to found. I chose a highly symbolic place, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, which I respect and admire: she was built by the genius of my ancestors on the site of cults still more ancient, recalling our immemorial origins.

While many men are slaves of their lives, my gesture embodies an ethic of will. I give myself over to death to awaken slumbering consciences. I rebel against fate.

Daniel Somers said in his,

Each day has been a testament to the extent to which I cared, suffering unspeakable horror as quietly as possible so that you could feel as though I was still here for you… My body has become nothing but a cage, a source of pain and constant problems.  The illness I have has caused me pain that not even the strongest medicines could dull, and there is no cure.  All day, every day a screaming agony in every nerve ending in my body.  It is nothing short of torture.  My mind is a wasteland, filled with visions of incredible horror, unceasing depression, and crippling anxiety, even with all of the medications the doctors dare give….

And for what? Bush’s religious lunacy? Cheney’s ever growing fortune and that of his corporate friends? Is this what we destroy lives for

But according to Mark Shea, one death is “narcissistic political theater,” and the other “barely culpable”. The suicides of these two men seem barely comparable, and yet, here they are, side by side. Mr. Shea and I may disagree about the importance of the causes for which these men died. I hope that ultimately he and I both agree that neither of these causes were worth their self-slaughter. And most importantly, we should agree that neither one should be exploited, denigrated, or glorified.


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