At the end of last year, many internet users noted 2016 as an all-around awful year. The year of 2016 was the hottest year in recorded history. There was the passage of Brexit. The election of Donald Trump. But, perhaps what cemented this negative reputation for 2016 was the deaths of seemingly dozens of noted celebrities, such as Prince, David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Alan Rickman, and Gene Wilder to name a few. For many, the feeling of dread that seemingly started in 2016 has carried over to 2017. With no end in sight, I want to consider how death and tragedy is framed.
Two weeks ago, Chester Bennington, the lead singer of nü-metal band Linkin Park committed suicide. At the time of writing, details are still vague, but the accolades have continued to roll in. Linkin Park has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide between their first mainstream album, Hybrid Theory, in 1999 and their most recent release, One More Light, in May of this year. Perhaps more important to fans was the content of their music.
At Bustle, Kadeen Griffiths notes, “Say what you want about Linkin Park, but as a band, they understood teenage angst like no one else.” That speaks to my appreciation for Linkin Park way back in my middle school days. While my iPod at the time could fit many more songs, their two mainstream releases (Hybrid Theory, Meteora), two extra albums (Reanimation, Collision Course with Jay-Z), their two underground releases (the Xero sampler tape, Hybrid Theory EP) and a host of other miscellaneous songs by the band were all I really needed.
A childhood friend even called me on the phone because he wanted to talk to someone about Bennington’s death. While I am sure this can be said about most artists, the music of Linkin Park had an impact that casual listeners or non-fans might not understand.
Around 2007, however, I did slowly listen to Linkin Park less and less frequently. Maybe I was going through another musical phase. Perhaps their 2007 album Minutes to Midnight, which moved away from their previous styles, soured me. Most likely, I simply had listened to their songs to excess; too much of a good thing?
The year 2007 brings us to the second relevant piece of sobering news that occurred in the same week: John McCain, Republican candidate for the 2008 presidential campaign, underwent surgery for brain cancer. McCain, who has spent more years as a senator than I have spent being alive, is a widely-recognized war hero: he spent years being tortured in a North Vietnamese prison in the 1960s while serving in the U.S. army. (This event was made particularly relevant in 2015 when Donald Trump mocked him for being captured.)
It should come as no surprise that I have stark disagreements with John McCain. He is best known for his advocacy of launching destructive military campaigns against a sizeable number of countries. He uses the anti-Asian slur “gook” and has no qualms about doing so. His policies would lead to a massive body count. He brought Sarah Palin to international fame. Notwithstanding, I do not wish death upon him.
In fact, it is hard for me to justify wishing death upon anyone. It is one thing to acknowledge that, in rare instances, killing might be necessary. For example, defending another person from an aggressor, or fulfilling a euthanasia request of a person in a vegetative state. Unless the killing is necessary to prevent harm, why should death be encouraged? Why should needless death be glorified?
I remember the night when President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. From my dormitory room, I heard elated cheers, yelps, and chants of “U-S-A.” Students with speakers blasted “America Fuck Yeah”, the theme song from the movie Team America: World Police (ironically, the film was a critique of U.S. foreign policy overreach). I shared in the joy that the threat of Osama bin Laden had been permanently minimized, but I could not get behind feeling joy in killing another human being.
Rejoicing when a source of wanton destruction is stopped is one thing. Celebrating carnage is another. The distinction is crucial.
The policy implications of this stance are important. For example, if a mass murderer has been brought into captivity, then the death penalty becomes not only unnecessary, but also immoral: her or his ability to cause harm to others has already been eliminated. Not killing those found guilty of heinous crimes is not “weak” by any means; it is a demonstration of the strength of a justice system.
While the term “culture of life” has been used by anti-abortion groups for years (despite anti-abortion laws leading to more deaths), I think developing a more refined respect for life would be an improvement in the United States. I am not just talking about cleaning up political rhetoric, such as when Trump joked about a Hillary Clinton assassination, but something more tangible: policy.
Blogger Matthew Yglaesias touched on a similar point:
Idea: The compassion Senators feel for John McCain and his family, but applied to all Americans who have health care needs.
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) July 20, 2017
John McCain ended up helping to kill the aforementioned legislation that sought to revoke health insurance from tens of millions of people, but the irony described in the tweet remains: conservative politicians’ outpouring of support of McCain clashed heavily with their intention to vote to revoke healthcare from millions of people. It is undeniable that taking away people’s insurance would lead to many people dying as a result.
Policy has real-world implications. Taking away health insurance from 24 million people will result in a lot of death. Invading a country will result in a lot of death. Making deadly weapons widely available will result in a lot of death. As blogger Atrios has observed, “It’s very rude to point it out, and it’s also very true.” It might be impossible to “death proof” a society, but potential death tolls should be taken into consideration when crafting policy.
And John McCain’s condition, while sad, should not erase his role in this: his advocacy for war and obliviousness on gun policy, amongst other policies have had long-lasting impacts on the U.S. political landscape. When people with whom I vehemently disagree have died, such as Antonin Scalia and Margaret Thatcher, I never felt the need to sugar coat the damage their lives’ works had done. People’s legacies are no more or less positive or problematic before or after their death. The senator from Arizona deserves nothing more or less.
The week’s news about Chester Bennington’s death and John McCain’s cancer provided a good contrast for me. Bennington–whose life’s work I respect–and McCain–whose life’s work has been and continues to be incredibly damaging–both face an outpouring of support due to their proximity with death. It is wrong to wish death on anyone, and I truly feel for their loved ones. Discussions of policy should not exclude the damaging implications that it might have–even when death is concerned.
In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.