December 02, 2006

Who Wants To Live Forever

The second most perfect & complete sad song I've ever heard. It's by Queen & was part of the soundtrack to the movie Highlander (the soundtrack by Queen is called A Kind of Magic). It's interesting also because Brian May (who wrote it) sings the first verse & Freddie Mercury then performs the rest of the song. Again the tint of hope in the latter half of the song make it even more poignant. The orchestration in the song provides an undercurrent of tension that the vocals & keyboards ride till you're swept away with them. The backing vocals are stirring & Mercury's voice - you don't hear him singing each word, you feel him singing each word. But as I said the song is rather dark & especially so with the hopefulness implied in the second half of the tune.

Here's the video (though it cuts off over a minute of the tune - find the album version if you can). Here are the lyrics.

The song speaks of despair but it uses an age old rhetorical question to express it. Who wants to live forever? Those same words though can be used not to signal apathy & despondence but resolution. In WW1 during the Battle of Belleau Wood a Marine Gunnery Sergeant by the name of Dan Daly inspired his troops with a similar statement ("Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?") I'm sure there were more than a few equivalents of that sentiment expressed in the Greek around 480 B.C.

Let's talk about the Battle of Thermopylae for a bit. Many of you know of it but for those who don't here's a very brief summation: A small group of Greek soldiers were led to hold the pass at Thermopylae against an invading Persian army led by Xerxes I. The Persian army's size is not known exactly but estimates run from about 60,000 to well over 2,000,000. The Greeks had about 7,000 men (though estimates vary) but after two days of fighting King Leonidas sent home all but 300 Spartans, 400 Thebans & 700 Thespians (not to be confused with another name for actors). The remaining Thebans surrendered but the Spartans & Thespians were all killed on the third day. It is estimated that those 7,000 men of Greece accounted for up to 50,000 Persians. The losses suffered by Xerxes' forces as well as the delay led to an unsuccessful campaign & the Greek city-states did not become part of the Persian Empire. It has been opined that western democracy did not disappear into the annals of history because of this.

King Leonidas' wife asked what she should do when he left for Thermopylae & according to Plutarch he replied, "Marry a good man, and have good children." It's reasonable to assume that King Leonidas knew that he & his men would die defending Thermopylae. It's also rumored that on the third morning of the battle he told his men to eat well because "tonight we dine in Hades".

I'm sure King Leonidas & his men didn't have a death wish. They weren't suicidal & if given the choice they'd have opted for living a little while longer. But they didn't see any way to live & still stop the invading Persian army. I suspect they knew they'd die someday & they'd rather it be while defending their homes than watching their grandchildren bow their knees to a foreign master.

"Only the rocks live forever. It matters not how long you live, but how you live."

That's an old Native American saying. (Some folks may remember the first part as the title of the first episode of the 1978 mini-series Centennial). But the sentiment is as ancient as mankind itself. No one wants to die - or at least most people don't want to die - for its own sake. Sure there are folks who are despondent about a lost love or their failing bodies & they see death as the only way to end their suffering, but most folks don't look at death as the most desirable outcome out of all possible options.

The Spartans & their compatriots viewed death as the only pragmatic outcome; they simply did not see how they could accomplish their mission (holding off the Persian army indefinitely) without being killed in the process. While they were alive they could kill Persians. If they died then they did all they could. But they couldn't accept the idea of surrendering or running away. It's said that Greek women would tell their husbands & lovers who were going off to battle to return with their shield or upon it. (Another old saying is "if mamma ain't happy ain't nobody happy" so I can see death being an alternative to dealing with the wrath of a Spartan wife). In the novel Gates of Fire one of the characters explains to another that there is no punishment for losing a helmet or a breastplate because they only protect the wearer, but loss of a shield is punishable by loss of citizenship because the shield protects the whole line. I've no idea how accurate that it but it seems plausible.

Disregard of self to accomplish a greater purpose; at the root that's what heroism is. It doesn't necessarily have to involve risk of life but in it's most envied forms it does. Risking or enduring pain & even death is seen as a very noble thing if in pursuit of some goal that's perceived as worthy. In some cultures (certain Asian ones for example) denial of self is seen as its own end, with monks & other holy men committing ritual self mutilation & suicide in order to deny any concern for the living body. In our cultures (at least in the South) enduring physical pain to achieve a desirable purpose was usually seen as a good thing. Many times I've heard folk talk glowingly of someone who was injured yet kept playing in a game or kept working till a shift was over or a job completed. I've known folks who have done that & I've done it myself. I will use as an example an old & very lost friend of mine who as a teenager walked this other friend of ours home. It was about a 2 mile walk but he didn't want her walking alone at night (it was a rough neighborhood). Not too remarkable? Well he didn't tell us until the next day that his foot had been injured & it turned out to have three broken bones in it when he set out for escort duty. He never complained once & the young lady didn't know for days. Not exactly like charging a machine gun nest but praiseworthy nonetheless.

But dying to achieve some purpose & knowing that's the likely outcome - that says something of your dedication. Not many people can or will do that for various reasons. Most of us want to live no matter how bad things seem. "As long as we're alive there's a chance things can improve" is how the thinking goes, but at times its wrong.

If you don't believe that it's wrong to think that living is always better than risking death then I'd ask you to query some Armenians & Jews to see if they'd agree with you. Coincidentally enough the Armenians were disarmed by the government prior to being murdered as were the Jews. In fact it seems disarming the civilians has been a common theme in many genocides & demicides.

Why is that? If men are willing to die for a cause then how can disarming them matter? Well it's simple; an unarmed man stands less likelihood of succeeding against an armed opponent. Even if our unarmed hero makes a noble sacrifice & perishes in his efforts to stop an invading force it won't alter the course of things much if he doesn't take at least a few of them with him. & weapons tend to make such noble sacrifices more likely to make a difference pragmatically.

Again though, most folks simply are not willing to die for most causes they believe in. I damn sure ain't taking a bullet to stop the heinous practice of "suggestive selling" at drive through windows no matter how tired I am of telling them "No, I don't want to try the super-deluxe value economy meal I just want a frigginí cheeseburger!"

But there's a lot of talk about doing just that. Cops performing no-knock raids & killing someone in the course of said raids has been a source of complaint for some time, especially when the cops get the wrong house & kill someone anyway. There are also incidents of cops using lethal force against unarmed folks during traffic stops. & criminals posing as cops to commit home invasion robberies. If you're a known gun owner then it's possible the S.W.A.T. team will be doing the honors of kicking down your door & killing you. What really got folks riled was when cops shot a 92 year old woman during a no-knock raid on her house. The old lady shot 3 of the cops before she perished & I'm sorry she didn't take them out with her. & I'd say that even if there hadn't been allegations of serious misconduct on their part.

The deceased elderly lady did more for her community than most cops will ever be able to; she defended her home against an intrusive government. It cost her her life but for a little while at least her local cops will be a bit more cautious about such things. Hopefully at least. If she had killed the cops who killed her then that delay would last a little bit longer. Of course it could very well be followed by an increase in the use of force in such circumstances under the popular rallying cry of "officer safety" but we each must do what we think we can.

A lot of bloggers (myself included) have opined that unless a warrant is handed over first then any home invasion will be met with disproportionate resistance. Speaking for myself only I don't care if I see a badge or uniform or a halo - if someone enters my home uninvited they will be repelled by the most expedient means I can employ.

& this is a good thing for the body politic. Attrition is a big threat to governments when they over-step their boundaries. If a cop or two is killed or badly injured during every raid then the frequency of such raids will eventually decrease. There simply aren't enough cops to sustain much loss.

The militarization of the police has been going on for some time & I do believe that the attitudes in law enforcement have gone much along the same lines as their choice of equipment. I can't recall where I read it but someone in the pro-gun circles once said something to the effect of:

"If the police insist on acting like an army of occupation then a citizen's role is clear: Viva Le Resistance!"

& I agree wholeheartedly with that. If anyone comes in your door uninvited without first letting you read a warrant then you should treat them as you would any other thug that breaks into your house.

But most people won't.

When a person sees a badge or hears someone yelling "police!" they tend to comply with whatever they're told. But deeper than that is something that goes through ever gun owners mind; "if I shoot a cop I'm going to die but if I do what they say I might live". That's what keeps more cops alive than all the Kevlar in the world. If you shoot a cop odds are they'll kill you before you can make it out of your house. Have you ever seen how many blue lights pass you when you're between them & a call of an "officer down" or "officer killed"? It brings a lot of back up when it's spoken through a police radio. I think I'm decent with a pistol & good with a rifle but I know my limits. 10 cops or less & I might survive although I'd probably be shot at least once. Over 10 & my odds of surviving decrease significantly. If 20 show up then it's a "last stand" if I resist.

I don't have much to anchor me to this world but dying under such circumstances isn't my idea of a fun weekend. If I had kids or loved ones to consider then it'd become even more unpalatable. & since there's a reasonably good chance you'd survive such an encounter if you comply then the incentive for making a stand over principle is greatly diminished.

Still some people do just that; fight an almost suicidal battle for a greater purpose than their own life. They are to be much admired for it in some cases but there aren't enough of them in my opinion to make a difference. The philosophy that the kids are being taught isn't conducive to such efforts & fewer & fewer kids will grow up with the idea that principles matter & are sometimes more important than living in their absence.

So what will happen is a few people amongst thousands or tens of thousands will die & perhaps take an errant cop or two with them but no great effect will be felt from this. Most people simply do not wish to die & repelling a dynamic entry team isn't a good way to fulfill that wish. Repelling any & all boarders should be done by every person in this country but it's only going to be attempted by a few folks who understand that some things are worse than death.

Hemmingway quoted a line from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part Two in his short story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

"By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death...and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next."

But in our society the idea that some things are more valuable than life just isn't very popular. Jefferson opined that resisting government even when you were in the wrong was preferable to blindly complying no matter the circumstances. He reasoned that a people who would not resist something they perceived as wrong would not be able to hold on to their freedom from a government who realized they didn't have to fear them. Pick any school age kid near you & relate that to them & ask if they heard anything remotely like it in any of their classes. Please let me know if they have.

Churchill once said:

"If you will not fight for right when you can easily win without blood shed; if you will not fight when your victory is sure and not too costly; you may come to the moment when you will have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no hope of victory, because it is better to perish than to live as slaves."

I believe that is something not only applicable to dealing with a socialist government bent on world domination but our own government bent on partial subjugation of its people. But I have not heard of anyone being elected or even running on an "end no-knock raids" campaign. I fear the choices we're left with tend toward the more dismal of the options presented by Sir Winston.

Most folks will comply with any order given by a cop, even if said cop has just busted down your door at 3 a.m. to give you that order. A lot of people will live because they chose to comply instead of resisting an immoral if not unlawful intrusion by an agent of the state. A few won't but I don't think they'd be 1/10th of 1% of the total of folks that end up on the wrong end of a no-knock raid. Still I'm thankful for those who do resist wrongful intrusions. They lose their lives for something that we mostly take for granted or ignore but hopefully one day their sacrifice won't be in vain.

Itís good for society if a person resists an immoral intrusion by government, even if it costs that person his/her life. But itís uncommon enough that itís doubtful any long term effects will be seen. We each have choices to make & priorities to arrange & dying isnít usually at the top of that list (Things to do list: get milk, pick up dry cleaning, get involved in hopeless shoot out with cops in hallway outside bathroom, call ex-g/f & use dying breath to tell her I'm still really sorry I told her such lame jokes all the timeÖ). The odds of surviving such an encounter with the cops is quite low & therefore most folks wonít think about it even if theyíd be morally right in doing so. If they do survive then the odds of them being free for long just arenít that good so thatís even less incentive to defend your Rights. But a few people will despite the odds & all we can do is holler for their release or say nice words as the dirt is poured over them. Then decide if we wish to make a last stand for a principle or play the odds in the hope that we live to fight some other day.

Who wants to live forever? I don't, but I'm in the minority. Who wants to live till they're 92 & die in a shoot-out with the cops? You'll have to ask miss Tam about that. But who waits forever anyway?

Posted by Publicola at December 2, 2006 07:44 AM | TrackBack

Damn! That was an excellent essay, sir. One of the best I've read in a while.

Posted by: BobG at December 2, 2006 10:51 AM