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 john.aroutiounian@yale.edu .

  • theantiyale

    Exactly as you say, Mr. Aroutiounian.

    December 12, 1973. I am walking by Kent Hall where the University President’s office holds forth.

    A secretary steps out into the chill of the front steps and says, loudly to me, “They convened a federal grand jury”.

    This is something I and others had worked to achieve for two years. after Nixon’x Attorney General had refused to convene one in 1971

    Suddenly the four students shot to death on the Kent campus May, 1970 might get justice.

    I didn’t know what to say or do, but I felt some reaction was expected of me, not by onlookers, but by the sudden end of an enormous project (50,000 signatures, three trips to the White House).

    So I cheered loudly ‘Yea’!

    The elation soured in my mouth Immediately I felt shame.

    I knew that one man’s justice is another’s suffering.

    Why was i cheering because others would now suffer—even if they might be guilty.

    I felt ashamed.


  • devicus13

    Thanks for the great article, John. I was so relieved to read it after reading so many crass fb posts from my supposedly educated friends that made me feel the same sense of disappointment that you talk about here. I think a lot of people could both improve themselves, as well as the face of whatever politics they take themselves to be standing for, if they could stop and recognize the humanity of their rivals from time to time, as you have done.

  • sy

    Very good, but you are too hard on animals. Animals almost never kill more than they eat. Humans routinely “kill” much more than they can eat, whether in politics or property, food or energy. Why people born after Thatcher’s time celebrated her death is another article. She was elected, reelected twice, and removed through majority vote, all by 1991. Before her, the people who tore down the Berlin Wall would have been shot. So she wasn’t a socialist? You’re right that it has to be anger, and, I think, state politics as replacement church–faux religious zealots. (Cubans here no doubt will celebrate when Castro dies because his life and dictatorship end at the same time.) We have state funerals when our presidents die, not street celebrations. Your shudder still applies.