This has been a busy week for the Grim Reaper, slashing out at friend and foe, winning each battle fought against clay-footed humans who earned obituaries on the front page inspired by love or hate or both. Words often have a life of their own, particularly in matters of life and death. Cosmic coincidences in man's fate bring to our attention very different men merely because they died within days of each other.
There's good reason why obituaries make good reading. They reveal insights into the human condition, forcing wonder at differences. So it is with the deaths this week of Kim Jong-Il, Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens -- North Korean despot, Czech patriot, eloquent contrarian.
When Kim Jong-Il died, he was loved, if at all, only by his North Korean countrymen who were brainwashed -- or terrified -- into seeing him as their "Dear Leader." He was a devastating force and constant fear, for them and for the West. We can only speculate how much of his evil will live after him. Philip Keninicott, the Washington Post's hyperbolic art critic, compares the grief of the North Koreans to the grief the English felt for Princess Diana, "self-feeding tears prompted by tears, emotion amplified and reinforced by the media." But grief of the brainwashed when compared to grief for a beautiful princess is both demeaning and dumb.
"The loathsome Democratic People's Republic of Korea is not a constitutional monarchy like Britain," John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reminds with understatement in The Wall Street Journal. What the West now experiences is a foreboding that the dictator's son Kim Jong-un, "the Great Successor," in his inexperience will try to show the world that he can wear his "dynastic" inheritance in ways that would make his evil father proud. That may be how his subjects are wearing their grief, too.
Though it's difficult to compare psychological rituals of East and West, it's not difficult to draw contrasts in concepts of good and evil when they conspicuously collide. Vaclav Havel, the heroic Czech dissident, understood life under a different kind of rigid communist dictatorship. He bravely wrote of the notion that "the powerless have power."