I was sitting alone at a diner writing in my journal when an old man at the table beside me laughed, leaned away from his newspaper, and waved for my attention.
“This is so funny,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Margaret Thatcher died,” he said. “Have you heard about the song? Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead?”
I had, in fact, as I am not an old person and know what the internet is. I’d heard about the controversy all week as it evolved in real time. The old man was referring to the grassroots effort in the United Kingdom led by a great many anti-Thatcherites to buy the song into a position of prominence on the pop charts in order that it would have to be played by the BBC. This in the thick of street parties organized across the nation to celebrate the Iron Lady’s death, her burning visage dotting the landscape of 28 Days Later, nooses around the necks of Thatcher dolls, tweets from British celebrities and public servants hoping that it was a painful, long, undignified end, and all of the usual ‘she is burning in Hell right now.’ For all eternity. Like, there are people who perhaps actually believe, and are pleased by the thought of, this woman on fire, in Hell, for infinity. The scarily-polarized reaction to the BBC’s middle-path approach — only playing a very little bit of the song — has been two-pronged: ‘Don’t censor us!’ from the political left, with ‘This is really heartless and wrong!’ from the political right. I found myself sympathetic to both arguments and also American, still, so thought I’d keep out of it. Alas, there I was.
“Oh,” I said, “the Wizard of Oz thing, sure.”
Fully derailed from my journal flow, then, I longingly looked to my eggs. Cold, probably, I thought. I needed more coffee, too.
“Isn’t it hilarious?!” the old man asked.
“Uh,” I said, “it all seems kind of sad to me, actually.”
The man’s face contorted in rage. It was The Lord of the Rings, when Bilbo, safely ensconced in Rivendell, is confronted once again by the One Ring as it dangles from Frodo’s neck. He wants it, is consumed by his thirst for its power, and then, for a brief, horrifying moment, is taken over by darkness. He becomes a monster — an aspect of the very thing that Frodo has set out to destroy.
“It’s not sad,” the old man snapped, “she was a fucking bitch and deserved to die.”
He leaned in as if he were teaching me. I was some silly young person, he might have thought. If I knew her politics, or perhaps just that she was a “bitch,” I would be dancing in the streets right now, overjoyed by the woman’s death. As it turns out, I happen to know quite a lot about our Beyoncé of Capitalism, but the topic is, for what I saw in that man’s face, quite beside our frightening lesson for today.
Because what I remembered, then, faced by an intense, real hatred, were the celebrations that swept the United States when Osama Bin Laden was killed. It was jarring, that I should be cornered, if even only internally, into a comparison of the thrice-elected leader of a socially and economically free, healthy nation with an accomplished, dedicated mass murderer. Yet there I was, and so here I go.
For many years I thought that justice would in some way correct what happened on September 11th. But then why, I wondered, when the footage rolled in of college students in Washington D.C. drinking and cheering and laughing, did I feel so empty? Did I feel so ashamed for us, even?
I believe it was because September 11th didn’t go away. I re-watched news clips from that day on YouTube (hint: NOT A GOOD IDEA EVER), and the horrible darkness of them still made me sick. I was still disturbed. Those things still happened. Osama Bin Laden’s death corrected nothing, healed nothing, and so there was nothing to celebrate. It cannot even be said that we are now more safe, as the once-powerful terrorist leader was marginalized in hiding and largely disconnected from authority prior to his death. All I could do, then, was watch unfold what he, in expiration, turned out in us, which was an elated applaud for carnage, and his last, terrible assault on this nation: we had become some frightening aspect of the enemy, insofar as the enemy can be abstracted as pure evil. We were literally cheering for murder.
Celebration then, even, of a death as well deserved — if any death could ever be — as Osama Bin Laden’s: it lowered us, and it was wrong.
But of a politician who we disagreed with?
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the celebration of death is justifiable. Perhaps “Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead,” you will think, as you take to the streets this week, overcome with joy for the death of a frail, old woman whose politics you didn’t like. But if you are this happy, if her death is this great, this necessary and just, this important, I wonder, should she have been executed? Surely, a woman this evil should not have been allowed to live, right? And would you hide behind a hangman in the public square, or would you do it yourself? Because any man or woman’s death who you would cheer, tears of happiness streaming down your face, you would be willing to kill yourself, right? Because she had different opinions than you, and people with different opinions than you should die.
This must stop.
Our Western experiment in self-government is less than three-hundred years old. It is not a trend in our human history, it is a radical aberration from the despotic norm, and its future is uncertain. A celebration of death cannot be justified in terms of justice ever, as it rights nothing, but in the arena of politics and the peaceful exchange of ideas, the celebration of the death of a woman who you just didn’t agree with? That is chilling.
Our economy is flatlining. We are at war, still. Peak oil? That is a thing, people. That is a thing that exists. That is a problem that is not going to vanish. And oh, who remembers the meteor that exploded over Russia in February? Because let’s ask the dinosaurs what happens to a species that doesn’t light a fire under it and get their asses off this planet.
We have to be able to talk to each other, and to disagree, or we’ll never learn, and to keep this experiment in freedom alive we need to be learning always. We need to acknowledge as well that whatever differences we may have, we are still human. Every one of us: Team Smart Monkey. Life, liberty, the free exchange of property and ideas, peace, knowledge, art — let us be united by the best of us, and never by the death of us.
We have a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it.
Will everybody please stop yelling?