The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


January 9, 1998
10:30 AM

Death and Birth

In case you thought this space would be all fun and games, today we take on a weighty topic: Birth and Death. Or, as Dan Quayle (or was it Walter Mondale?) put it: "those things at both ends of life..."

The subject is occasioned by a succession of recent news items that may appear disconnected at first, but which raise a central question of human values, as we enter the 21st century (are you thoroughly sick of that phrase yet? You will be.).

First, we have the Death Penalty. The jury in the Terry Nichols trial couldn't agree on whether to execute him for contributing to the deaths of 8 federal agents in the Oklahoma City bombing, and as a consequence, he won't be killed for those killings. (They might still get him for the 160 other, ordinary people he helped blow up, in the Oklahoma state trial).

Then, our friend Ted Kaczynski tries to take his own life by hanging himself, so that he doesn't have to face the prospect of being convicted of murdering some people, which might lead to the death penalty. After the attempt, Kaczynski is placed on a Suicide Watch, so that he can't kill himself before the State gets a chance to do it.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam the other day, several former executives of the highly influential Tamexco company, which has been exposed as an example of rampant corruption in the transition to a market economy, were publicly executed by firing squads. Among those shot was the former Director of the company, Nam Huy Phuoc (coincidentally, I uttered the same words just the other day when I bashed my toe into a chair). Mr. Phuoc was guilty of using company money to buy an apartment for his girlfriend, among other things.

I would like to dwell for a moment on the first example, the Terry Nichols non-decision. CNN and other news outlets reported the result with phrases like "stunning development". Of course, in this age of journalism-as-brain candy, the fact that the sun rose this morning is liable to be described as a "stunning development". Nevertheless, the media went on to interview relatives of the Oklahoma victims, asking penetrating questions like, "were you shocked?" and "what would you say to the jurors, if you could?"

It is in this manner that sensationalist reporters reinforce a lynch-mob mentality in favor of capital punishment, as if only a crazy person could be against it, especially in the case of such a horrid crime, with so many innocent victims. Shock and indignation, we have learned, cause people to tune into the news and to buy the paper more regularly, so if there's a way to shock the public with some outrageously unjust action, we can be sure it will be the leading story around the country.

Another TV program, promoting its upcoming feature on a death-row inmate and his victim's relatives, played a sound bite of one woman, who said "I only wish they didn't just use lethal injection. I wish they could use the electric chair or the gas chamber." The producers love this stuff, because then they can dangle the idea of public hangings or -- hey, why not? -- firing squads, and get everybody on both sides of the issue worked up into a frenzy.

All we get when someone tries to suggest that, just maybe, capital punishment is not such a wonderful idea, is the swaggering, fist-pounding, tear-filled outrage of those whose lives have been devastated by murderers, and their all-too-willing advocates in the political arena.

Meanwhile, we barely hear, unless we're paying close attention, about places like Vietnam, or Saudi Arabia, or Nigeria, or any number of societies where people are executed, with a bullet to the head, for what in this country we call "white collar crime". In other words, they're killing the equivalent of Republicans, for goodness sake. I suspect if such a practice were suggested in our part of the world, it would produce the same kind of outrage that opposition to capital punishment generates today.

And yet, you can't really separate the issues, in my opinion. It's easy to say that blowing up a building, killing 160 people, is a more heinous crime than stealing from the company treasury. But obviously, in the minds of the Vietnamese government, and perhaps of its people if their media are similarly inclined to promote bloodlust, corporate corruption is deserving of death, too. Do we look at them and say, well, they're an uncivilized society? Or do we realize that, at their stage of development, the economic consequences of widespread corruption are as great a threat to social order as is widespread lethal violence in our own country?

Look at the financial crisis in Asia: not long ago, Libya or Iran or one of those places executed a group of "money changers," essentially small-time versions of George Soros, who were capitalistically trying to profit from exchange rate fluctuations. Yesterday, a bunch of money changers in Indonesia were thrown in jail for contributing to the chaos in their country. Maybe they should be killed, too? Why not? Look at all the pain and suffering of simple, hard-working Indonesians whose life savings, and maybe even lives, are being destroyed by economic catastrophe exacerbated by currency speculation. Let's interview some of these "victims" on the air, hear the heart-rending stories, and generate a groundswell of anger that calls for the criminals (here, we call them "investors") to be beheaded!

You will say, perhaps, that it's still not the same. An eye for an eye, after all: if you kill someone, you should give up your own life. But if you steal, you should only lose your wealth, and maybe your freedom. Is it as simple as that?

Let us turn, for a moment, to Birth.

Surprisingly, I'm not going to talk about Abortion here, although it may seem the obvious counterpoint to talking about the Death Penalty. That topic may come up some other time.

Actually, I'm interested in another news item: the announcement that a U.S. scientist intends to open a chain of clinics to create human clones, to help couples that can't have children. His name, I kid you not, is Richard Seed.

(My stepson, Jordan, who knows all about clones from TV cartoons and Jurassic Park, was very excited by the news, and wants to be one of the first volunteers to be cloned: he wants his clone to go to school in his place.)

President Clinton has expressed concerns about human cloning, asking scientists to refrain voluntarily from messing around with the technology, which is like asking a goat to refrain from chewing shoes. Of course there's experimentation and research into human cloning, probably all over the place. Mr. Seed is merely the first to plug into the publicity machine, in blatant pursuit of investors in his fast-baby franchise idea (apparently, once implanted, clone babies could be born in 2 to 3 months).

We can now eagerly anticipate the public relations battles as some factions question the ethics or wisdom of human cloning to combat infertility, while the profit-making proponents bring out the weeping couples unable to have a baby on their own. We've already been through it with surrogate motherhood and in vitro fertilization; cloning will merely bring the frenzy to new heights.

What are the cons of cloning? They fall into two categories: the scientific and the ethical.

The scientific drawbacks of growing live, adult human beings from cloned DNA can be summarized in one simple phrase: we haven't got the slightest idea. Will there be risks of uncontrolled mutation, new diseases or susceptibilities, birth defects, psychological deviancy, dilution of the gene pool and essential biodiversity? No clue. Nada. It's all a guessing game right now, and unfortunately the only way to find out would be to try it, and see if the species survives. I'm inclined to think we should make a few more sheep first, at least.

As for the ethical concerns raised by human cloning, here is where I get back to the Death Penalty.

We have long been able to take life, whether for just cause or not. Now, we may be on the verge of being able to create life (make no mistake: unlike IV, cloning isn't "natural" conception, in any remote sense). As a society, a collection of conflicting and confused cultural values, we have little common agreement on what we believe concerning the notion of "God," but if there is any basic unifying thread, it must be God's paramount role in human birth and death. If not, we sure go through a lot of rituals at baptisms, brisses, wakes and funerals for nothing.

Ask yourself abstract questions like: Would a clone have a soul? Would it simply share the soul of its host, or get a new one? Does a serial killer have a soul? Is the serial killer's soul guilty of murder, too, or are souls innocent? If a serial killer's soul is reincarnated, should we execute the reincarnated person, too? Is there any way we could extract the soul of a serial killer from his body just at the moment we publicly disembowel him, inject it into a cloned DNA molecule of one of his dead victims, and thus bring the victim back to life as a direct consequence of the execution of his murderer? But then, if we did that, wouldn't he no longer be guilty of murder?

Do you think I'm just joking around? Well, the problem is that we as a society simply don't like to think about the ethical, moral, spiritual, whatever, implications of the decisions we make based on the passion of the moment and the goading of the omnipresent media. Someone was killed, let's kill his murderer. We want a baby, let's buy one. Sure, we'll go to Church or Temple, and they have some interesting things to say, but we've got to get on with life, for God's sake.

I only wonder, what are we supposed to do when the time comes along that we can't find a simple, pre-packaged solution to a life-or-death question? When a child dies not by the hand of a murderer, but by a bullet from the parents' own gun, kept in their house to protect against criminals, trigger pulled by his best friend, playing naively? When an infant is stillborn, or a mother dies in childbirth, or a car rams into a tree? When "infertility" is not the reason a woman cannot have a family, but loneliness is? When the hour of our own individual mortality finally arrives, and we must stare it in the face, without recourse to righteous indignation or biochemical trickery?

At these moments, how comforting is it to recall that we humans, collectively, have assumed the pretense of being able to play God? Isn't there something to be said, even now, for reverence, and humility, and respect for life? Can't there still be some absolutes?

"But this is terrible!" cried Frodo. ". . .What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had the chance."

"Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need. . . .You have not seen him," Gandalf broke in.

"No, and I don't want to," said Frodo. ". . . Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? . . . He deserves death."

"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but . . . my heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that time comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many -- yours not least. . . ."

--JRR Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.


1998 David N. Townsend

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