Death is the most inescapable certainty all of us have. Yet, contemplating our own mortality always seems surreal even when intellectually we accept its inevitability. The finality of death is so mercilessly absolute that to cope with it psychologically we invent beliefs in some kind of immortality — afterlives such as heaven or reincarnation. After all, how could the universe get along without us?
At my advanced age I have known a growing number of friends and relatives who have died, and so far none have come back from the dead with reports of an afterlife. Nor am I aware of any scientific evidence that indicates anyone ever has. So, logically, it comes down to a matter of existence and non-existence.
Considering that existence does not begin until birth or, according to the pro-lifers, at conception, a 20 year old is as close to nonexistence as is a 60 year old — if actuarial tables are accurate. Before birth and after death, we do not exist, notwithstanding theologians’ contentions that we do. All that we really have then is life in the present — right now, right now, right now.
Death is an instant off switch, but life is ongoing until that switch is thrown. It is better then to focus on living than worrying about the instance of dying. And, through all of human history, few if any places have offered a greater opportunity to focus on living than has the United States of America. This nation was founded on principles intended to maximize the joy of life, specifically by organizing society around guaranteed civil liberties. The pursuit of happiness requires such liberties, which are enumerated as the Bill of Rights of the nation’s Constitution.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks the greatest threat to these life liberties has been the fear of death. In a dubious effort to provide security, official America’s reaction to 9/11 was a panicked rush to abridge civil liberties. With the passing of the insidiously named Patriot Act, the nation appeared to reject the proudly defiant oath, “live free or die,” to embrace the timidly cautious admonition, “live free and die.”
Giving up fundamental liberties in hopes of avoiding sudden death by terrorists is a fool’s bargain. Death is always lurking around us and can strike suddenly from many directions. Car collisions, fertilizer plant explosions, tornadoes, gas line eruptions, earthquakes, drowning and heart attacks, to name a few. These strike with little if any warning and most of them claim more lives than do the acts of terrorists or the acts of other homicidal whackos.
While reasonable restrictions on personal freedom are necessary to preserve everyone’s fundamental freedoms and provide sensible safety, the erosion of constitutional civil liberties in the aftermath of 9/11 jeopardized fundamental freedoms by growing police powers to surveil and detain the population, to disregard due process and even torture those detained.
The terrorist bombs that went off in Boston last week remind us that a free society has inherent risks. And, while it is tempting to believe that such human-caused death and mayhem can be eliminated by ceding more liberties to increased police power, such beliefs have been shattered by reality. Applying sufficient suppression on society will not deter the grim reaper. It will only add to the sources from which human caused death and mayhem will ensue. Typically, police states become brutally and indiscriminately lethal.
That is why in the immediate aftermath of the Boston terrorist bombings, it was encouraging to find that the reactions from officials and citizens alike were ones of defiance and resolve to continue living freely, rather than calls for more hunkering down and further restrictions on civil rights. Maybe we have been steeled by the 9/11 experience and are reconciled to the reality that the unprecedented freedom Americans enjoy comes with occasional payments in blood. Maybe we have reconfirmed our credo to live free rather than to simply exist in slavery to fear, with the false hope that nothing bad will ever happen to us if we only surrender enough personal freedom and privacy to authoritarian caretakers.
We are all going to die eventually — something is going to get us. But, that reality is less important than how we live, and living free is the best way to live.
— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at email@example.com, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.