Morality and Mortality

By Peter Bearse

Mark Slouka, the author of "A Year Later," does a disservice to our country and the extraordinary responses of "ordinary" people to 9/11. The main point of his article, our collective "denial of death," is pegged as the source of some problem that he walks around and never succeeds in defining. Whatever; the source is not our American "myth." Our country continues to serve as a "City on the Hill."

As one great American poet reminds us: "if there is any legitimacy to the word we call mythology, it is literally the activeness and personalness of experiencing it as such" [Charles Olson, Causal Mythology]. We have seen so much this personal "activeness" in response to 9/11 over the past year. Yet Slouka would diminish the power and merit of our founding nation's founding "myth." His article also tries to turn onto some questionable side path points that detract, too, like his claim that we now exhibit "tribal" behavior. And so, he loses his way. He fails to plumb the meaning of death, and so he fails to understand why its denial is so dangerous.

Such understanding springs from deeper sources. One was set forth many years ago in Ernest Becker's ESCAPE FROM EVIL: denial of death is one of the basic sources of evil. Another is a truly ancient "tribal" understanding: natural death is instrumental to life; each of us must die to make way for new generations to fully live. A 3rd source is implicit in Slouka's recognition of the "Christian foundation of American exceptionalism." Ironically, this recognition points to one of the common denominators between Christianity and Islam. They both provide rationalizations for crusades to kill unbelievers; i.e., those who are not like us. "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war"!

Thus, Slouka is right to be concerned even though he doesn't fully understand why, a year later. A country denying death and suffering from the evil of others seems about to take a giant step towards adopting a culture of death. If we declare war on Iraq and put our killing machine(s) to work, then we have lost faith in our myth and moved towards death and evil rather than life and morality. In the end, you are right, Mr. Slouka. If we cannot face the truth of our mortality, then there's not much to our morality. The removal of a truthful 't' from mortality does not generate a word that is a meaningful foundation for a new world.