DUCK SOUP: Last Suppers

A growing body of evidence, actually a growing body of bodies -- or skeletons at any rate, has led anthropologists to conclude that the Anasazi were cannibals. This has come as something of a surprise, since their descendants -- the Hopi, the Zuni and other Pueblo tribes -- are among the most peaceful cultures in the world. It has been long and widely assumed that the builders of the great cliff dwellings and road systems in the Four Corners region were similarly pacific.That assumption is greatly at odds with the discovery of baked skulls from which cooked brains have been eaten, and splintered long bones devoid of marrow. Add to that the presence of human grease on the interior of cookpot shards, and human remains in human coprolites (the polite scientific name for poop), and -- well, you get the picture.Death fascinates and repels -- as it must for we who endure, obvious beneficiaries of a powerful and ancient survival instinct -- and cannibalism is right out there on the edge. Whether it is a thousand year old roasting pit piled with the butchered bones of men, women and babies, or a freezer in Wisconsin where a wacko stashed his sexual conquests, the evidence makes us squirm.In warfare we may make allowances, but the death of innocents is called murder and one of the chief demarcations between those we deem civilized and those who are not involves treatment of non-combatants. In the Vietnam war it was the Mylai massacre that most repelled. In Rwanda it was mothers wielding machetes to hack enemies' babies to death that shocked the world. Ugandan ex- dictator Idi Amin is said to have eaten children, and thus placed himself beyond the pale.We bring those sensibilities to bear on murderers as well, hence the intractable debate about capital punishment. Yeah or nay may get the upper hand for a historical while and then shift again, but whether we opt for execution or life in a cage, we reserve our most extreme punishment for those who brutalize the innocent. At the same time, we offer grace to those who do our bidding.One member of a firing squad is supplied with a blank bullet -- all together they aim and fire, but each may be innocent. Electrocution or poison gas allow a little personal distance between cause and effect. Lethal injection is softened by the supposition that it provides the gentlest entrance to that good night. In days of yore the axe man wore a hood to the chopping block.The executioner is granted absolution because the sentence is imposed by others and the executee is non-innocent. When that is unclear, we waver. Recall the photo, again from Vietnam, of a kneeling man with head rocked sideways as a pistol bullet exits his skull: guilty or no? Beyond our opinion of that war or any war, we are the more deeply troubled by doubt. Who was that prisoner? What did he do? Whose finger on the trigger? By what authority?And so we have Kevorkian, an admitted executioner. The sentencing judge is God or Nature or Fate, take your choice, and Dr. Jack the instrument. Those who oppose euthanasia warn that we must not entrust doctors with the terminal decision. There may be other motives afoot: relatives eager to disburden themselves, or insurers anxious to cut bait -- even, a la the Sci-Fi thriller "Soylent Green," an over-crowded future population in need of nutrients.But the right to die will not be denied to those with a will. Scott Nearing starved himself when his time was at hand, enabled by a loving wife who shielded him from the world of feeding tubes and intravenous drips. Years later, Helen Nearing, in her turn, slammed a car into a tree. For those with degenerative diseases surcease is harder to obtain. Already under medical care, the step-by-step from ordinary to extraordinary intervention is difficult to halt.Perhaps what we now require is jury by peers. Make the case that you are terminally ill, desire release and are of sound mind, and receive sanction to go. We trust juries to sentence the outlaw. Can't we trust them to permit death for those who would be on their way?


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