Human Exceptionalism

Murder Not the Answer to Alzheimer’s

David Brooks rarely gets it right, I find.  But he mostly did in his last column about a man named Charles Darwin Snelling. Brooks had earlier extolled Snelling’s essay about how caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife had “humanized” him.  But then, Snelling murdered her and killed himself.  Brooks is clearly agahast. From “Respect the Future:”

Everyone approaches this case with sadness and trepidation. But I can come to only one conclusion: Either Snelling was so overcome that he lost control of his faculties, or he made a lamentable mistake. I won’t rehearse the religious arguments against murder and suicide, many of which are based on the supposition that a life is a gift from God. Our job is not to determine who is worthy of life, but how to make the most of the life we have been given.       

I would just refer you to the essay Snelling himself wrote. Only a few months ago, Snelling wrote that his life as his wife’s caretaker was rich and humanizing. By last week, he apparently no longer believed that. But who is to say how Snelling would have felt four months from now? The fact is, we are all terrible at imagining how we will feel in the future. We exaggerate how much the future will be like the present. We underestimate the power of temperament to gradually pull us up from the lowest lows. And if our capacities for imagining the future are bad in normal times, they are horrible in moments of stress and suffering.

My uncle died of Alzheimer’s. I know the terrible toll the disease takes and the tremendous strain it puts on families, and in particular, on spouses. My aunt endangered her own health caring for him and hiding the extent of his disability from the rest of the family. She would never have dreamed of killing him.  She would have cared for him into her own grave first.

But with the assisted suicide movement telling us that lethal injections and/or suicide is “dignified” and at least implying that life with serious afflictions isn’t, should we wonder that some take their deadly message farther than might be intended?

There is also a sense in our current moment that we shouldn’t have to be burdened.  That abandoning meme is catching hold  in various ways. Pat Robertson, for example, disgraced himself when he assured a viewer that it was fine for someone to divorce a wife with dementia, since, as he so crassly put it, “She’s gone! She is gone!” No, she’s very ill.  She’s still her.

Losing control is very hard.  Seeing a beloved spouse so ill is utterly devastating.  With that, we can all sympathize.  But many of the comments to Brooks’ column are very disheartening and dangerous: So many are excusing, even supporting, what Snelling did.  He may well have had a breakdown, but if not, it was far worse than merely a “lamentable mistake.”

How ridiculous in a column involving murder that Brooks felt the need to assure readers his opposition wasn’t based on religion. Are we really to the place that only the religious are perceived as opposing the murder of the seriously ill?  We had better not be. Otherwise, no one who is seriously ill, dependent, or disabled is safe.

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