To choose to die on one's own terms

December 13, 1996|By Alexander Hooke

''This is is the only way I want to die: To make my death the occasion of a crime is an idea that causes my head to spin.'' IS THIS A QUOTE found by investigators of the Sharon Lopatka crime? Could this be one of the unerased messages expressing her secret desires on the Internet?

The death of the Marylander has drawn widespread attention. For months she had been planning her death by trying to find someone to assist her in a spectacular and, in most of our eyes, horrible experience.

So far, commentators have largely worried whether Sharon Lopatka's death will affect the use of telecommunications by the crazies of the world. Yet the epigraph above was made long before cyberspace. It was written in a jail some 200 years ago by the Marquis de Sade. He was hardly the first to link his own death with crime. There is a long and even noble history to this idea.

While everyone knows that Socrates was made to drink hemlock, most of us forget how Socrates consulted his friends in order to help decide how he should make his own death. Should Socrates shamefully escape prison and live unjustly, or drink the hemlock and let his dying be testimony to the law's committing a greater crime by executing him?

That he chose to die earlier and on his own terms rather than desperately cling to an unworthy life did not draw the moral rebuke of his friends. In their eyes, according to the Phaedo story in which Socrates dies, he was the ''wisest, justest and best'' of all men.

We might be reminded how Christianity grew during its infancy. Persuasion of potential converts was more drastic than manipulating target groups who subscribe to cable TV. The early saints often enticed possible Christians by making their own deaths a crime. The chronicles of Christian martyrs testify to excruciating efforts in making one's own death a criminal matter.

"Yields to God alone"

''How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain,'' wrote the early Christian historian Minucius Felix, for the dying saint ''raises his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone.'' If beautiful for God, imagine the effect on mere mortals witnessing the event. Which of us non-believers could resist the call to belief upon such a sight?

Sharon Lopatka's death obviously does not carry the stature of the above examples. To simplify her demise, however, to a discussion about anonymous chat rooms or kinky sex only reveals our own obsessions more clearly. This simplification has the added effect of keeping us in the fog about how her death reflects a recurring human concern -- making death one's own.

Nietzsche once speculated, ''Many die too late and some too early. Still the doctrine sounds strange: Die at the right time.''

As far as we outsiders can tell, Sharon Lopatka made a strange decision about this doctrine. Perhaps only her family and friends have a sense of the inner torment, confusion or fascination that drove her to North Carolina. Maybe her spectacular departure will be memorialized as a cultural or legal event. Could a Lopatka bill await the next Congress' deliberations over policing the information highway?

Whatever our speculations, we should be wary of feigning moral lTC indignation or righteousness over Sharon Lopatka. She is an extension of a culture unable to convict Jack Kevorkian of a crime where, unlike more celebrated death crimes, the suspect freely admits his complicity.

This inability is a sign of moral paralysis. Talking about Sharon Lopatka's tragic death only in terms of computers or perversion can only sustain this paralysis.

Alexander E. Hooke teaches philosophy at Villa Julie College.

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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