When the apartheid government of South Africa banned Shirley Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery” only a few years following the end of World War II, the novelist was proud: “They, at least, understood the story,” her husband recalled her saying. Her admonition that blindly followed routine can cause unrecognized injustice led people from small towns across America to cancel their subscriptions to The New Yorker in droves. They hadn’t understood. She was, after all, insulting their morality — their basic ability to distinguish between good and bad. Of course people could distinguish between their base instincts and justice, they thought.
In Jackson’s fictional town, a selected person is annually sacrificed at the altar of the community. But can tradition actually ever be so vile? Can evil really be carried out unconsciously in places that feel so safe?
This week brought the sad news of the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the tragic, untimely suicide of American pastor Rick Warren’s son. The former was 87; the latter, 27. As responses to the news came in, I felt that sick pang in the stomach that accompanied finishing “The Lottery” for the first time. It’s a feeling I can only recall on two other occasions: when televised crowds gathered in front of the White House, chanting “USA” over the killing of Osama bin Laden, and when the news first broke of protests at funerals of soldiers. Here were examples of the celebration of death — joy from others’ pain. Here were functioning members of society reverting to perhaps one of the most primordial emotions characteristic to man: the desire to see someone suffer or be stomped into the ground in exchange for their perceived misdeeds. Perhaps we refuse to pick up the stones ourselves, like Shirley Jackson’s characters or the societies that still condone stoning as a means of punishment — but are we any more consistent or morally upstanding if we’re standing in the sidelines, cheering death on? How are we any better than the audiences at gladiatorial exhibitions?
Man is more than the sum of his parts. He is more than his biological tendencies. It is no surprise that when we see or hear about humans acting in ways corresponding to their animal-like instincts, we often get the very disconcerting sense that what is being done is actually inhuman — for it is the gap between that animal self and who we are that constitutes our nature as human beings, distinct from other animals.
This is precisely why the death penalty, a relic of our primordial past, is quickly being dispensed with. It is why infanticide, in all its forms, will also eventually disappear. But we haven’t adequately stomped out the phenomenon of celebrating the deaths and sufferings of others. I was reminded of this every time I heard a friend say, just this week, that they were “dancing in the streets” when they heard Baroness Thatcher had died. I was reminded of it every time I saw pictures of young people in England drinking on the day of her death. I shuddered when I read that many people were mocking the beliefs of Rick Warren while he grieved for his son. And I did not know what to say when I heard a student say he was happier at Thatcher’s death than bin Laden’s. How can death ever be anything but a time to grieve? If the death involved someone with injustice in his or her past, whatever your locus for measuring injustice might be, is the cause for grief not even greater? Ought we do nothing other than mourn that, on the occasion of their death, there is so little to celebrate about how they lived?
Distance fosters alienation. Media, which creates social distance, only adds to alienation. It is easy, then, to come to think of those we hate as symbols, as ideas and not as people. They become merely the channels of our frustration, of our hate and anger. We do not come to terms with ourselves or our station in life, and we continue to cultivate a very inhuman seed in our hearts that allows us to ignore the humanity of people whose actions we disagree with or cannot comprehend. In celebrating the deaths of those we judge to have carried out evil, we add to alienation, to disconnection, to a loss of empathy in ourselves and in civil society at large. In fact, we make carrying out evil all the more routine.
After all, the lottery happens every year.
John Aroutiounian is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .