In October 1993, Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer, looked at his severely handicapped daughter, Tracy, and decided she should no longer have to live with her constant pain. He gently carried her to the family truck, hooked a hose from the exhaust to the cab, and watched as his daughter died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He did not hide the fact that he had killed her, telling the police that he had done so out of compassion, in love, to free her from her suffering.
Few legal and moral issues have so galvanized a nation. Fierce debates have ensued at every level. From kitchens, to national radio phone-in shows, to the highest courts in the country, this issue has been debated: Was what he did a crime? Was what he did an act of compassion and, indeed, courage? Should he be punished? Should he be lauded? What does this say about the value we place on the lives of those who are disabled?
Two criminal trials ended with a jury convicting him of second-degree murder, but recommending clemency. The jury of public opinion, however, has ruled otherwise. No formal polls have been taken, but if newspaper commentaries, phone-in shows on radio, talk on the streets, and the reaction of most academic moralists is any indication, it would appear that public opinion is considerably more sympathetic than critical.
Again and again, we hear the words: “This is not a criminal act in the normal sense. He’s not a criminal. What he did was an act of compassion. He killed out of love. You just have to know the man, he is good, and he loved his daughter.”
Whatever the other merit of those statements – and those among us who have physical disabilities are understandably not much swayed by them – what is disturbing about them is the fact that, generally, those making them are not just trying to exonerate a man who had to make an excruciating decision in a very painful situation, they are claiming the moral high ground – and seeing anyone who opposes them as narrow and lacking in compassion.
In today’s culture, it is seen as enlightened to support what Latimer did and backward to oppose it.
Few things could be further from the truth. I do not want to harshly judge Latimer – personally I think that he is very sincere, though equally as misguided – but I do want to make some rather harsh judgments about our culture, about its hidden violence and its blindness to the fact that its violence often kills precisely people like Tracy Latimer.
For all of our talk of being sensitive and enlightened, what our culture does not yet see is what anthropologists like Rene Girard have long tried to teach us, that our culture still sustains itself by scape-goating certain persons. We too kill, but always under that sanctioning dictum of the high priest, Caiaphas, who once said, “Far better that one person should die for the people.”
If we are really more enlightened than previous cultures then we would see that whenever a human heartbeat, any human heartbeat, is snuffed out – whether it be that of Tracy Latimer, a condemned murderer on death row, a fetus or a terminally ill person – there is some high priest somewhere, a cultural high priest whose voice is generally discernible in public opinion, saying: “Better that one person should die for the people.”
The result today is the same as it was back when those words were first intoned: Somebody is going to die, invariably someone without power. Cultures have always survived by scape-goating, by sacrificing people and considering this exercise as sacred. We have done it for centuries in capital punishment and today we are doing it in multiple forms. Thus children, particularly the unborn, do not fair well in our culture; neither do outcasts. Child sacrifice can have a subtle face, as can any form of human sacrifice. Abortion, capital punishment and mercy killing of all kinds need to be seen in this light.
Moreover, in the discussion of all of this, we need to highlight always the voice of the ultimate victim, the one whose life is being snuffed out, the one who is in that unenviable position of being (in Gil Ballie’s brilliant phrase) “unanimity-minus-one.” God’s voice is always present in that one.
From a Christian perspective this is clear. God always stands where the victim stands.
But this is also true anthropologically. The one who is socially marginalized stands in that place that the builders of the culture have rejected – “the cornerstone rejected by the builders.”
Victims stand outside the frenzy of the mob and the frenzy of the mob is seen precisely by standing where they are standing. A victim’s perspective is always the best critique of any culture.
Would we could stand where Tracy Latimer stood. It would help unmask the enlightened violence within our culture.