No21 January 1997.1
A Culture of Death
Four people are born and two people die every second. In the minute you spend reading this article, 120 pairs of eyes will close for the last time, and another 240 will open for the first. Life is a commodity that comes and goes with dizzying speed, in overwhelming quantities. If this is so, then perhaps life isn't so precious after all. Not to mention that the little we have is taken away from us bit by bit, minute by minute, day by day. Why make a fuss about it?
In North America, and especially in Quebec, some people die because they no longer know how to live. Four high school students in Coaticook take their own lives. Why? What is this disease of the soul that leads to despair, that overrides the instinct for survival, that compels some to take the irrevocable step of self-destruction? What has become of the values that made salvation possible?
This wave of suicides seems to have sounded a wake-up call: 250 parents gathered together, hundreds of students showed up, school personnel wondered, and 15 media, both French and English, were present. They wanted to understand what had gone wrong. And to think that we don't know how to deal with spiritual matters. In Quebec, people are dying because they have no reason to live. They have no hope.
In Africa, some people die because human life is cheap and does not seem to carry much weight. A million dead? So what? Who really cares? Naturally, we talk about it just as we recall the last show we have seen, but we quickly move on to other things. Until we see the next million refugees on our television sets, or the plight of thousands of prisoners, more dead than alive. There are 85,000 suspects crammed into Rwandan jails, awaiting judgement for crimes related to genocide. For more than two years, they have lived in overcrowded jails without trial or sentencing. Recently, the brevity of the first two "war crimes" trials has convinced many Rwandan exiles that most death sentences would be passed without legal representation or any hope of appeal. And yet the condemned strive to go on living because life is so important in Africa. Life on a dungheap is still worth living, because one day flowers may spring forth from it. They have hope.
In North America, and especially in Quebec, we are fighting to abolish capital punishment. No one has been sentenced to death in Canada since 1966. Abolitionists base their arguments on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 5 of which stipulates that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." The United Nations has 184 members, and they subscribe to this article. Some may ask, "Then how should we respond to violence?" Responding to violence with violence means getting locked into a vicious circle, except that vicious is too mild a word. Try "infernal". Responding to violence by giving up, by not reacting, by turning a blind eye, is not a response, but a cop-out. Only strength is capable of responding to violence. Violence is fury and hatred, acts that never should have been committed, injustice that never should have been done, devastation that never should have taken place. Violence is as stupid and destructive as the lead of a bullet. Strength, on the other hand, possesses the finest qualities of the heart and the spirit. Strength is in right thinking; strength is in right acting; strength is in the love that is willing to lay down its life.
In Africa, people are fighting to ensure that life will win out over death. More than ever, Africa must focus on improving its human rights record. For this to happen, each country must comply with international law. While many African countries may refer to the Agreement Against Torture, only 20 out of 54 have actually ratified it. The same is true of the second optional protocol on the covenant to abolish the death sentence: only three of the 54 have ratified it.
Abolishing capital punishment does not excuse crime or confer impunity. On the contrary, it makes it possible without contradiction to increase our awareness and our recognition of the other as an equal, even as a brother, while bringing him to justice, passing sentence upon him and making it impossible for him to harm anyone else. It is to remain in the hope that he may someday change, and to acknowledge that for this reason, in every case, he has a right to dignity and a right to life. (Observatoire international des prisons, January 1977).
Have you ever taken a close look at people passing by in cold weather? Each time they breathe, it makes a little cloud of vapour. It's like looking at a house with smoke curling out of the chimney. You know that someone lives there. Under the coat and hat, the embers of a life are glowing, a heart beats, a chest rises and falls, blood circulates. And there are thoughts as well; a little joy, a little sorrow; a few secrets, some good, some bad; a place for love, although sometimes it is not filled; a little hope; in short, a life that burns with an invisible flame. The flame of life is so fragile in human beings. Whenever we encounter it, it is important not to extinguish it with hostile and violent actions, by torture or death.
One hundred and twenty deaths during this moment of reflection, 240 births: like ocean waves that roll in and roll back out again. Life comes and goes. But if we have respected others, life does not vanish like a drop of water in the ocean; it is the wave that has already washed us onto the shores of eternity.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.