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."
What was a far-fetched idea when he presented it in an essay published underground in 1978 was one of the sparks that ignited a flame in the hearts of men and women behind the Iron Curtain that would lead to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
While we hear of no such underground leaders in North Korea during decades of tyrannical rule, Bolton suggests that the people are not totally ignorant of the world outside their hermetic state: "Already desperately impoverished and hungry, they may well decide at the first signs of regime collapse, or even before, that their moment is at hand."
Such ideas remain far-fetched until they no longer are, and though this is no time for naive optimism, it's useful to recall that the hunger for human rights is a potent force. Gone is the "evil empire" that Ronald Reagan was mocked for noticing. In 2002, George Bush was mocked for observing an "Axis of Evil" (Iraq, Iran and North Korea). Now Saddam Hussein is gone. Kim Jong-Il is gone, and his son is untested. Words matter.
We'll miss the sonorous voice of Christopher Hitchens, who would relish the opportunity to throw his long rope of words around the good and the evil of the two men whose deaths quickly followed his. How he would have loved playing and stretching the historical references to contrast their lives, to ferociously spit out the ideas that made him the polemicist many of us read because as a Romeo of the political left and right he had a remarkable way with words.
Hitch loved to pick fights with friends as well as foes, and it wasn't surprising that he picked one of his biggest fights with God, who, he famously said, "is not great." So powerfully did he spew out his vitriol that there were times you expected him to be wrestling with the Almighty himself. Even among those who disagreed with him fervently on many matters (as I did), there was always respect for the way he crafted a sentence and his arguments on behalf of human rights.
Now he's in the company of Vaclav Havel, perhaps in an afterlife, no matter what he may have thought about such things. The good words men write live after them. He expressed appreciation for those who prayed for him in spite of what he believed, or more accurately, what he didn't believe. Maybe now he's showing them respect, too. It's nice to think so.