A culture of life vs. a culture of death

Posted: Apr 04, 2005 12:00 AM

What do Robert and Mary Schindler, Mansour al-Banna, Hanim Surucu and Kofi Annan have in common? Absolutely nothing. Really. By chance, though, they have all passed through, or, in the case of the Schindlers, remained, in the spotlight of the news in recent days because of their relationships with their children.

The Schindlers, of course, are the parents of Terri Schiavo. They famously and fruitlessly labored to restore their 41-year-old daughter's right to life after her husband-cum-guardian discovered her right to death in the shadows and penumbras of his memory -- seven years after her brain-damaging accident.

Mansour al-Banna is the Jordanian father of Raed al-Banna, who has been identified as the perpetrator of the most lethal terrorist bombing in Iraq. On Feb. 28, the 32-year-old al-Banna is believed to have killed 132 people, injuring 120, outside a health clinic in Hilla, 60 miles south of Bagdhad. According to the Middle East Research Institute's analysis (on www.memri.org), the killer's bereaved family celebrated with a party -- a 'wedding of the martyr' to symbolize the son's wedding in paradise with 72 virgins -- that, not incidentally, has ignited a diplomatic crisis with Iraq.

Hanim Surucu is the Turkish-born mother of the late Hatun Surucu, who, on the night of Feb. 7, is believed to have become the sixth victim of a so-called "honor killing" in Berlin in as many months. German police have charged the 23-year-old Hatun's three brothers in her slaying. The mother, "wearing an ankle-length green-and-blue print dress and matching hijab," told the Los Angeles Times, "My sons didn't do this.
They went to work and then were taken away in handcuffs."

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is the father of Kojo Annan, who is at the reeking center of the oil-for-fraud scandal at the United Nations. Annan pere doesn't really belong in this parental lineup since his son is facing not death, but disgrace. But Kofi's parental plan of attack is striking. As a London Telegraph headline put it, "Annan will sacrifice son to save himself." So much for Annan family values. Of course, no matter how big a zero Kojo might be, Kofi isn't going to enhance his own reputation by trashing his son's. But it's the thought that counts.

Kofi and Kojo aside, do these wholly disparate stories of parent life and child death tell us anything? Again, these people have nothing to do with one another except for the fact that none of these adult children died a natural death. Terri was starved to death at her husband's behest by the state; Raed was a family-feted suicide-bomber; and Hatun was murdered, allegedly by her brothers, to restore "honor" to her family. In other words, some considerable measure of family approval sanctioned all these deaths. Their lives were determined to be worse than their deaths.

Somehow, this combined experience put me in mind of something I recall from an earlier year in the "war on terror." I can't recall if it was in an Osama rant, a Zarqawi lament, or whether it was just the rhetoric of some frothing jihadi on the Internet. But I do remember taking pride in the blunt, cross-cultural attempt at a put-down: "You love life the way we love death," it went.

You bet. Or so I thought. Maybe, after what Terry Schiavo, even in her profoundly diminished state, has revealed about her fellow citizens, it would have been more accurate for that jihadi to have accused us of loving quality of life, a conditional state of being that is none too categorical. And much less so than I thought back when "mercy death" conjured up the release of a comatose, machine-dependent, painwracked mortal to his maker -- not the starvation of a brain-damaged lady who needed just three liquid squares to make it through the day.

You love some life, the jihadi might have said, the way we love some death -- for what is paradise without 72 virgins? A bad dream, to say the least, but hardly worth the trouble of infidel-murder and self-detonation. It is a paradox, surely, that the "martyr's" afterlife in paradise is defined by fleshy rewards -- a brothel everlasting -- while, in theory and in faith, a Western "culture of life" on earth makes no physical promise. But a culture of the quality of life may be something else again. It only loves some life better than death. Which makes me wonder if it can ward off a jihadi.