You Must Die That I Might Be Free

There’s a vulgar little thought that keeps intruding when I am trying to think about anything else.

It’s of a piece with other things that have impeded my ability to think and to sit still for many weeks. And it touches on the same themes. But it is motivated less by concern and more by spite.

We ought to take two impulses in turn.

Beginning weeks ago, and ending only recently, I used to lie awake at night or stare into space during the day time, only for my thoughts to jerk in a particular direction. I think these thoughts were initially accompanied by the tightness of the chest and the faint suggestion of a shortness of breath which some asthmatics can summon from memory. When these visions began, I would imagine darkness coming on, boundless and rapid.

I first thought that this was normal morbid fear. The kind that, perhaps once every five years, causes me to sit up in bed, gasping, in brief and quickly dispelled horror. I am going to die; I can’t do anything about it; it’s racing closer and closer all the time.

This time, the feeling is for others. Initially for my family, but they’re safely cloistered or in rude health. Then for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who have since been lost to the disease. Before containment had heartily failed, before many had even fallen sick, before the world had locked down, before the false cures began to be touted – I had consistent thoughts of the deaths of others, the individual gasping and choking, all of it coming inescapably closer.

Now, as hundreds of thousands at minimum have died, that fear has been replaced. It’s no longer in the offing; the drawn-out dying progresses for thousands all the time, and can be duly accepted and its knowledge can be locked away.

Mainly, the visions are replaced by nothing. But increasingly, it has been supplemented if not supplanted by first irritation, then red anger.

Anger, primarily, at the people for whom these mass deaths either mean nothing, or are an active interruption of their lives. The people who would rather your painful demise not trouble them unduly. The people who demand that restrictions be lifted because they are bored; because it’s an imposition they will not accept; and who, on principle, demand that some must die for liberty.

It may as well be you.

Look at how those who want to end restrictions hold themselves. To them, ancient liberties are more vital than the lives of others. The tree of liberty may need watering with the blood of martyrs. But not volunteers, this time. Victims chosen at random. ‘You must die’, they say, ‘that I might be free’.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First came the minimisers. Let’s look briefly at them. Simon Jenkins and Peter Hitchens exemplified the type – people so used by decades of column-writing to the business of assertion that reality’s intrusion begins to upset and warp.

Jenkins declared, March 6, three months into what was clearly an event whose memory would outlive us all, that it was probably overdoing it, those government preparations which have since become a byword for underdoing things. ‘Of course, I could be wrong. I could get ill. Millions could die. But it is also possible that come the spring, this crisis will have passed’, he said. Well, we’re on our way to millions. Let’s place a pin in that prediction.

Hitchens minor, Mail on Sunday, March 14: ‘I have for many years believed that door handles pose one of the greatest threats to health, and try never to touch them with the naked hand. I was taught from my earliest years to wash my hands before eating.’

He laments: ‘A florist known to me has just lost hundreds of pounds in business from cancelled events this weekend.’ How simply awful.

And, with a strange bluster of a piece with many of the others, he announces: ‘I reckon that my risk from coronavirus is quite small. If I catch it, and I quite possibly will, I doubt it will trouble me all that much.’ He and his readers both, we are expected to conclude. We shall pin that one, too.

All of this was before 33,000 official deaths and 50,000 suspected, in this country alone. We’re all sometimes wrong. But these seemingly inconsequential utterances by superannuated infants may have affected that number.

Now the tack has changed. For many, those deaths do not per se matter, just as the lives which preceded them are easily dismissed. Lockdown ‘sceptics’, such as they are, say that despite the rather large pile of bodies visible in their peripheral, there is actually nothing to be seen here.

They suggest that the restrictions, first placed and now loosened by government, will kill more than the disease. Perhaps these people are enthusiasts for cirrhosis and suicide, because those mortal causes will need some encouragement to kill 50,000 this year, or to have done so in the last eight weeks.

Some papers actively root for death, of course, and the embracing of it.

The most obvious proponent of this deathly desire is the Daily Telegraph. Its pages have included a number of efforts, variously, to pretend that the pandemic is not a big deal; that it’s less dangerous than suggested; and that even if it is serious, and deathly, we all die anyway, yeah – so why not do so next week?

A recent example of these oddities comes from columnist Sherelle Jacobs. She calls the pandemic ‘the biggest political ruse of our time’, ‘propaganda’, and says ‘the public is effectively being lied to’. Is it, though? Is it really?

Jacobs notes, excitedly, that people are dying of heart attacks and cancer, untreated, at a higher rate than from the pandemic. (In fact, only a day or so ago, people celebrated the disease killing slightly fewer than cancer – that great generational scourge, a word so leaden that people in the recent past sometimes could not speak it – for the first day in the past several months.) But her piece was happily published before the numbers of heart attack cases appearing in A&E began roughly to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The great lie she means, apparently, is that people might die of a number of different things – not just the epidemic which has likely killed millions across the world, and whose death tolls have been stopped in their tracks in other countries no more resourceful and rich than our own.

That’s the ‘propaganda’; that’s the ‘deceit’. Only odd, indeed, that in the face of such histrionics as Jacobs offers, it’s the advocates of public health who are accused of being hysterical.

Now, some of these people, like Jacobs, are simply crackers. Others, like Jenkins and Hitchens, are so used to being heeded and spoilt, and allowed to speak their brains to deadline for pay, that disputing their undergirding assumptions is seen as unsporting, or something only an ignorant, uncharitable person would do.

It is perhaps simply odd that it took pestilential times to show all this. I could see some of them leading Boxer rebellions, in which mystic ritual was said to protect adherents from bullets, or whirling like dervishes, or selling amulets and icons by the side of the road, in an earlier age. Now they write comment pieces for formerly august papers. Plus ça change.

Other lockdown critics are more subtle, or at least more specific. Lord Sumption, a clever man, is worried that the law is becoming an ass. The Coronavirus Act was all-encompassing and its restrictions seem occasionally arbitrary. All well and good to say so. That is his purview. But in order to defend the law from the politicians, Sumption brings in real world examples to his own detriment. In the Sunday Times, he responds as his own opponents to the question of ‘why?’

‘The usual answer is that by going out and about we may infect other people’. It is the correct answer. ‘But that no longer works as an excuse for coercion. Those who do not want to run the risk of being infected can isolate themselves voluntarily.’ Without restrictions, and guidelines for workplaces, and public consciousness of the infectiousness and mortality of this disease, no they cannot. They emphatically cannot. ‘The rest of us can then get on with our lives’, Sumption concludes. Misunderstanding the nature of epidemic disease while we do.

But let’s address an increasing cry on the same comment pages. That we, in this post-Christian age, have forgotten how to die. We believe we can outrun death. We try vainly to live a little longer through abstemious diets and exercise, and in doing so we prove ourselves ridiculous.

This is the essential assumption of a piece by David Oldroyd-Bolt, a friend, so I hope my précis is accurate, in a recent edition of the Telegraph.

Of a piece with this, perhaps, is the paper’s happy conclusion that not wanting to die in this epidemic is therefore foolish, and restrictions placed for the purposes of public health only collude in the foolishness.

At worst, some of this discussion degenerates rapidly. Those of faith find themselves smugly positioned above those without, assuming atheists die harder and more afraid. ‘I’m all right, Jack. I’ve made peace with my God’, after all.

During the elaborately atheistic French revolution, placards were hung near cemeteries containing the phrase ‘death is but an endless sleep’. It sounds rather appealing.

Richard Dawkins, not en vogue any more but a totemic figure in recent atheist activity, describes the end of life as entering a period of eternity under general anaesthetic. How lovely.

Socrates, on trial for atheism as well as corrupting the youth of the state, is meant to have said, per Plato, ‘There is great reason to hope that death is a good.’

These are random examples produced for no particular reason – if only to say that the concern people have about dying in this epidemic is not a generalised, absurd hope that death can be indefinitely deferred, or even that they would rather spend the next few weeks talking to their family on Skype rather than choking on fluids in intensive care.

It’s not even the proximity of death turning stomachs yellow and faces white.

It’s the sense that to die in this epidemic is deeply unnecessary. Mass death in this pandemic is avoidable, as Australia, Hong Kong, South Korea and yet others have shown. Mortality is not eternally postponed, of course, but from this cause it can be – for enough time to deprive the epidemic of its ready supply of victims.

Werner Herzog, an irreligious man and a tough guy, does not fear death on its face, but is (a little unhappily) hunkered down with the best of them. Why?

‘I do the most aggression against the virus by hunkering down’, he tells Empire. ‘Which sounds like a paradox, because hunkering down is defensive. But we have to starve the fucker.’

That gets to the heart of things. The disease’s fuel is human life, without which it halts. To reach all it must reach one. All its nominally willing victims are willing executioners.

So we return to my vulgar thought, the one that keeps intruding, of a piece with the red hot anger at those who would kill others to keep florists open, or to prompt a bit of useful mortal fear, or to save the law’s elegant face.

Return to those we have pinned.

I don’t want them to die, exactly. I never exactly have. That would be too strong, and hypocritical to match. Deathbed realisation, too, of the wrongness of one’s actions in the course of ironic expiry – that’s the stuff of films. But for these people all to get ill, ill enough that it cannot be brushed off – ill enough that perhaps a change of heart is merited. It’s still too much to hope for, and too cruel. But it would possibly be apt.

And so the wicked impulse continues, just about, to survive as I try to think of other things. As a vein would perhaps, in more overtly stressful circumstances, beat a steady, pulsing rhythm in my temple.

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