Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Apology

The posts this morning have me thinking about the insidious methods of corruption. Evil is not content in merely being evil -- it seeks to remove all legitimacy from others as well, to drag others into guilt, and through shared guilt, eliminate the possibility of reprisal or contrary action. I am reminded of this passage from Plato's Apology in which Socrates says that maintaining his moral integrity is far more important than maintaining his own life (my emphasis added):

Let me tell you a passage of my own life, which will prove to you that I should never have yielded to injustice from any fear of death, and that if I had not yielded I should have died at once. I will tell you a story - tasteless, perhaps, and commonplace, but nevertheless true. The only office of state which I ever held, O men of Athens, was that of senator; the tribe Antiochis, which is my tribe, had the presidency at the trial of the generals who had not taken up the bodies of the slain after the battle of Arginusae; and you proposed to try them all together, which was illegal, as you all thought afterwards; but at the time I was the only one of the Prytanes who was opposed to the illegality, and I gave my vote against you; and when the orators threatened to impeach and arrest me, and have me taken away, and you called and shouted, I made up my mind that I would run the risk, having law and justice with me, rather than take part in your injustice because I feared imprisonment and death. This happened in the days of the democracy. But when the oligarchy of the Thirty was in power, they sent for me and four others into the rotunda, and bade us bring Leon the Salaminian from Salamis, as they wanted to execute him. This was a specimen of the sort of commands which they were always giving with the view of implicating as many as possible in their crimes; and then I showed, not in words only, but in deed, that, if I may be allowed to use such an expression, I cared not a straw for death, and that my only fear was the fear of doing an unrighteous or unholy thing. For the strong arm of that oppressive power did not frighten me into doing wrong; and when we came out of the rotunda the other four went to Salamis and fetched Leon, but I went quietly home. For which I might have lost my life, had not the power of the Thirty shortly afterwards come to an end. And to this many will witness.

I remember a similar story on the History Channel of an early purge of Saddam Hussein's in which he gathered the Baath Party members for a meeting, announced there were traitors in their midst, and had the party members begin denouncing each other. Then he demanded that those not found guilty of disloyalty execute those who had been, making murderers of the survivors and binding them to him in their now shared criminality.

These questions we face make moral demands upon us all. We cannot simply reply, "this is a private matter for someone else" when we, our government, our courts are implicated in these actions, when our police stand ready to bar water from a dying woman by force of arms. I fear a similar dynamic at work in living wills: we have made our wishes known! If you haven't (or can't), then I'm sorry, but we've all been good citizens who've graciously and conscientiously scripted our exits and promised not to poop on anyone on the way out. We gradually, collectively, get used to denying life to the non-compliant. At that point, the reality of our collective guilt makes changing the evil policy much more difficult.

Insidious, as I said. Thank you, Plato, for remembering.

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