Death. It’s an interesting subject. It is the thing that, perhaps, we are the most afraid of, and yet for some it can also be looked forward to. It is a beginning and an ending, the omega and the alpha. But one thing we can be sure about, except for a few very rare occasions, is that it is final. There is no coming back from death. With such finality attached to the concept, there is going to be a lot of weight attached to decisions regarding it. Sure, most of the time death just happens and there is nothing we can do about it. But sometimes we do have some control over it, and so our imperfect human psyches begin to make judgements and decisions and that’s when things get really messy.
There are questions regarding death that we deal with from time to time as they pop up in our culture. Is an animal’s life worth less than a human life? Is a “bad” human’s life worth less than a “good” human’s? Is there a difference between killing someone or something by accident, versus on purpose? Is unborn life really life at all, and does it deserve some protection from death? These are all important questions whose answers we are not all going to agree upon today. But I want to focus on another question that seems to pop up a lot. Is there a difference between killing something, and letting it die?
We were almost packed up and ready to walk out the door, when the subject I had been dreading reared its ugly head. “Daddy, what about my balloons?!” Ruby was holding her gigantically over-sized balloon hat that had survived dinner, a Broadway show, a cab ride, and two more days in the hotel, and her eyes were pleading with me. But there was nothing I could do. We simply could not take that thing onto the airplane. And so I gave her a choice.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, and I truly was, “but we can’t take the balloons with us. You can either pop them and throw them away, or you can leave them in the hotel room.” I wondered, did she know what would happen to the balloons if we left them? Surely she did. Surely she knew that leaving them behind was, in the end, equal to popping them ourselves and throwing them away. But foisting the act onto someone else absolves us of some of that guilt, doesn’t it? Because maybe the hotel chambermaid would walk in, gasp in delight at the gift that she had been left behind, put the balloon hat onto her head, and finish out her day of cleaning in style. That was at least possible. We would never know, because we would be long gone by then.
Edward was thrilled to be able to pop his balloons, and he went about the room cackling with glee as his hat and sword exploded with joyful exuberance. He did love his balloons, but not as much as he loved destroying them. Ruby, however, did not want her balloons to die. She wanted desperately for them to live. But was leaving them behind the same as killing them herself? Or was it different?
I have to confess that I have not seen the movie “Man of Steel.” I heard that it was terrible, and when you have children you can’t go to the movies every weekend anymore. You have to pick and choose wisely. You don’t want one of the 4-6 movies you see that year to be a dud. So I skipped it. And maybe it is awesome, who knows? But I can tell you that I read a lot about it. I read that Superman murders an entire city full of people. And then I read some angry people defending Superman, saying that he doesn’t murder anyone, he just doesn’t save them, because he has to go stop the bad guys. And then I read many comments to the effect of “what’s the difference?” If you can save someone’s life, and you don’t, does that make you complicit in their death?
Every few weeks I load up the car with another pile of “stuff” to take to Goodwill. It is a process to be sure, packing everything up into bins and buckets, sorting out clothes from toys, cramming it all into the car, and driving across town to deliver the items. Why do I do this? Well, I do this so that other people can enjoy the things that I once enjoyed but no longer have a place for. Some of the things anyway. Let’s be honest; some of it is just crap. Broken things, items with missing pieces, stained things, ugly things. I know what is going to happen. Goodwill is going to sort through it all with their cold, unfeeling eyes, and then they are going to throw 90% of it away. And I’m okay with that. As long as I don’t have to be the one who does it. Hypocritical? Perhaps. But I just can’t bring myself to condemn beloved toys to the dumpster. She wore that shirt every day for two years. He loved those socks more than anything. I can’t just…throw them away! So I’ll let someone else do it.
The courts don’t see much of a difference, actually, between killing someone and having someone else kill someone for you. Contract killing is the same as killing, and both the hitman and the person who ordered the hit are guilty of murder according to the legal system. In fact, even negotiating with an assassin who ultimately does not commit the murder makes you guilty of attempted murder. So yeah, any jury of my peers would have to find me guilty of throwing away the Busy Ball Popper, even though I made Goodwill do it for me. But I LOVED the Busy Ball Popper! It was the whole family’s favorite household item for probably five years! How could I just throw it away? And maybe I didn’t? Maybe that was the one item Goodwill saw potential in, cleaned up, and sold to another family who are now busily popping balls as we speak! Maybe.
Maybe that’s how the Batman villains in the old television program assuaged their guilty consciences. “But officer, I didn’t kill Batman! I simply left him in cage dangling over a vat of acid with a laser ray slowing cutting through the rope! How was I supposed to know he wouldn’t escape! He always escapes! It’s not my fault! I wasn’t even there when he died!” Is there a difference between killing someone and leaving them to die? The final episode of Seinfeld asked a version of this question, as the group of friends found themselves in prison for not helping someone in trouble. The fictional Samaritan law stated that watching a crime being committed without stopping it was the same as committing it yourself. Letting someone die is the same as killing them.
There is no real Good Samaritan law, although in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island you are required to call the police if you witness a crime, which is slightly different. No, in real life letting someone die does not hold the same weight as killing them, but having someone kill them does. And so, as we left the hotel room with our suitcases, but without our balloon hats, we could take some cold comfort in knowing that, whatever happened to those latex friends of ours, we were not ultimately responsible. The universe would decide their fate, and not us. And in the end, that’s the best you can really hope for with balloons, isn’t it? I don’t know. You decide.