February 24, 2020

We Are Dying of Overexposure to Death

Let me tell you what has scarred me for life. 

It wasn’t just the machete, or being beaten to a pulp, or the shock that I might soon be dead as my friend and I were attacked by Palestinian terrorists in 2010. It wasn’t even the humiliation that came from begging for my life from those who thought themselves strong. 

It was witnessing the death of another human being. 

It occurred to me that, should I ever again get into the dreadful situation of witnessing a person being hacked to death, somehow it would be easier — less shocking, less traumatic.

Not just watching, but listening, too. Kristine Luken’s prayers, her pleas with her executioners and her expiring breaths blended to form the last sounds of this innocent woman as she went to meet her Maker.

Invading my friend’s final moments with God was like bursting into the Holy of Holies. Violating her sanctity by unwillingly eavesdropping on her as she was about to die is what has scarred me for life.  

Months later, when I faced the murderers in an Israeli court, I realized just how deep the scars were. As I stared at those whom I had encountered in the Jerusalem forest, I watched them yawn and roll their eyes. Death had anesthetized their souls. They were soulless zombies, bored by death. 

Yet it wasn’t their indifference that horrified me the most. It was me. 

It occurred to me that, should I ever again get into the dreadful situation of witnessing a person being hacked to death, somehow it would be easier — less shocking, less traumatic. In a way, I realized I had the potential to become like them: dead inside.

There is a passage in the Torah (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) in which the children of Israel are commanded to take down before sunset the body of an executed person hanged from a tree. Rashi notes that for the body to be left up there too long would be a degradation of the Divine. It also was a violation of those made in the image of God.

Our forefathers knew that looking at death for too long had a price. We, too, are in danger of paying that price. Metaphorically speaking, we are looking too long at bodies hanging on a tree. 

At our own peril, we are becoming accustomed to death because watching murder is accessible today like never before. However far away we are from the carnage, news and social media see to it that we can satiate our macabre yet natural fascination with death. We observe slaughter in real time, eavesdrop on the pleas of the dying and listen to the desperation of loved-ones trying to help.

With deluded spiritual impunity, we put up our feet and watch footage of people as they breathe their last breaths. One moment we click on a red-faced emoticon after reading about the day’s latest atrocity, and seconds later scroll down to click on a heart, showing our friends how much we love hamsters eating broccoli. Ignorant of the fatal blow the death of others has on our souls, each time we become less moved and less shocked.

We are dying of overexposure to death.

Death has a task. It serves to remind us that life is not forever. The role of death is not to arouse in us fascination or voyeurism as it comes to claim others. The role of death is to instill in us appreciation for life so we can take on the yoke of responsibility that comes with the business of living.

Death reminds us that we are here for a limited and unknown amount of time during which we must act for the good of our families, our communities and the world. It is the certainty of our own death that should spur us to become kinder people.

If and when we do bear witness to the murder of others as they go to meet their Maker — online, on television or by other means — let us do it with appropriate trepidation and caution, because if we look for too long, we stand to invade the Holy of Holies, desecrate others and the Divine. 

In doing so, we deal an irreparable deathblow to ourselves. 

Kay Wilson is a British-born Israeli tour guide, cartoonist, musician and educator for StandWithUs.