Straight Talk about Suicide

We Are Squeamish and Superstitious about Suicide

Suicide–like accident, illness, death, poverty, persecution, and war–has always been with us and has always been regarded as a part of life. Believing that a person’s life belongs to God, not himself, the Jews declared it to be a grievous sin, and Christians and Muslims followed suit.

Enlightenment thought did not overtly repudiate this view. Instead, it supplemented it with a secular version of it. Suicide, declared the mad-doctors (“psychiatrists”), is due to a disease of the mind, which it is the duty of mad-doctors to prevent (by imprisoning/”hospitalizing” the madman/”patient”). The mainstream media and most people accept this ostensibly scientific doctrine as truth, just as many people still accept the ostensibly God-given religious doctrines as truths.

Although we now have more so-called rights than we have ever had–such as welfare rights, disability rights, patients’ rights, the right to choice, the right to treatment, the right to reject treatment, ad infinitum–we have no right to suicide.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush–with his disarmingly gauche use of language–called the act “cowardly” and the terrorists “cowards.” That characterization of our Muslim enemies was quickly abandoned in favor of our “scientific” clichés: brainwashing and mental illness. Declared George Will: “And although Americans are denouncing the terrorists’ ‘cowardice,’ what is most telling and frightening is their lunatic fearlessness.”

William Safire opted for brainwashing. He explained: “A more powerful weapon [than surprise] of radical Islam is its ability to erase from the brains of recruits the basic will to live. The normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer’s self-martyrdom leading to eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins.”

One of the effects of the September 11 attacks was that every politician and pundit suddenly became an expert about the fine points of Muslim theology. “This perversion of one of the world’s great faiths,” pontificated Safire, “produces suicide bombers. How to build a defense against the theological brainwashing that creates these human missiles? That is the challenge to Muslim clerics everywhere. . . .”

How wrong can our most respected pundits be before we begin to view their expertise as we regard the expertise of the Enron accountants? The Muslim suicide bombers are a challenge to their victims, not to their teachers and paymasters. Any other interpretation is our collective folly, serving to indulge our love affair with a misguided concept of multiculturalism.

Are brainwashing, cowardice, and lunacy our only choices? Surely, it is not difficult to see an Arab youngster training to become a suicide bomber and becoming a celebrated patriot and martyr as engaging in what he considers a rationally motivated series of actions. From the point of view of the future terrorist, his family, and his society, his actions are just as rationally motivated as are the actions of a young American engaged in going to college, studying medicine, and becoming a surgeon.

I maintain that, from the point of view of the suicidal actor, planning to kill himself and carrying out the act is also rationally motivated. However, we regard this interpretation as so flagitious–so indecent–that, for most Americans, it is as good as taboo. The only socially acceptable view is that suicide is a “cry for help,” uttered by a person who has a mental illness (depression) and denies that he is ill.

Caused by Depression?

A large, multistory shopping mall in Syracuse–the Carousel Center–has become one of the favorite places for young men and women to jump to their deaths. Every time this happens, the newspapers present the story as if the act were a symptom of–that is, were “due to”–the subject’s mental illness. “Suicide jumpers often disordered” was the headline of a long report on the suicide of a young woman in April. “[She] had been battling the disease [depression] for several years,” her father said. The rest of the long, double-headed article–the other title was “Suicide-prevention counselor says barriers to jumping should be considered”–was devoted to telling the reader that (most) people who commit suicide, or think of doing so, suffer from “bipolar illness,” explaining that the disease is genetic and chemical in origin and that it usually responds well to treatment with drugs. This and other newspapers never mention that persons suspected of being “suicidal,” or who try to kill themselves and fail, are routinely incarcerated in prisons called “mental hospitals.”

Muslim clerics engage in theological brainwashing. Do the mainstream American media–not to mention organized American psychiatry–engage in therapeutic brainwashing? Of course not. We call this “educating people about mental illness” and “eradicating the stigma of mental illness.”

Kay Redfield Jamison–professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University Medical School–is America’s poster girl for suicide as a preventable and treatable illness. She advertises herself “As someone who studies, treats and suffers from a severe mental illness–manic depression”; preaches the psychiatric mantra: “Suicide is due to mental illness and mental illness is treatable”; and explains: “I drew up a clear arrangement with my psychiatrist and family that if I again become severely depressed they have the authority to approve, against my will if necessary, both electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT, an excellent treatment for certain types of severe depression, and hospitalization.”

Well and good. Does Jamison approve of other persons, similarly afflicted, having the right to reject psychiatric coercion and kill themselves? Certainly not.

We are so blind to the essentially human (non-”pathological”) nature of voluntary death that we deny the reality of what people throughout history viewed as “heroic suicide.” “Of all the ‘isms’ produced by the past centuries, fanaticism alone survives,” declares memory-champion Elie Wiesel. “We have witnessed the downfall of Nazism, the defeat of fascism, and the abdication of communism. But fanaticism is still alive.”

Our political-ideological prejudgments prevent us from acknowledging Zionism as the reason why some Palestinians choose to kill themselves for political reasons. Our psychiatric-ideological prejudgments prevent us from acknowledging the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as the reason why some Americans choose to kill themselves for personal reasons.

We are as squeamish and superstitious about suicide as people used to be about demonic possession and witchcraft. And we will remain so until we begin to take seriously how we talk about it.