Last week the residents of La Loche, SK suffered a great tragedy. Four bright young lives were taken and another life, that of the perpetrator was changed forever by this terrible act of violence. All of Saskatchewan mourns. All of Saskatchewan asks why this happened and, as in all such cases, we are asking how this can be prevented from ever happening again? Many, including Archbishop Murray Chatlain and others have been asked to comment and weigh in on this tragedy and factors, including deprivation and despair that precipitated it.
One of most interesting comments appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix (Monday, Jan 25, 2016, in the National Post section, NP1). It is a comment made by Elena Shurshilova, a psychiatrist who flies
into La Loche from Ottawa to treat patients in the remote northern part of the province. Shurshilova comments:
“What happened isn’t surprising at all, but what is surprising is that something like this didn’t happen before in this location where the suicide rates are so high,” said Shurshilova, who was heading home from a stint in Saskatchewan when she first hear word of La Loche.
“Homicide and suicide are two sides of the same coin—two sides of violence—violence out of desperation and despair. The violence is either inward toward oneself, or outward towards other people.”
“It is a distraught person feeling trapped angered, frustrated.” (Emphasis added.)
Although this has grave implications as we look at why such terrible acts of violence occur, as we see an ever-increasing number of them, even in places like “small town Saskatchewan”, it is important to look at what this says about society as a whole. Taking a broader perspective, what are the implications of this violence connection when we consider that soon it will be legal and even possibly imperative that health care professionals assist those who are so inclined to commit suicide due to physical or mental suffering? Are we not mandating violence as a solution to “desperation and despair”? How is it that our courts on the one hand can say that this is a “reasonable solution” and then purport to ever judge those who decide that violence is the answer to their own particular pain?
Either all human life is sacred and deserves to be cared for and not destroyed –ever–or it is not. If it is not then the decision as to who lives and dies has the potential to become as random as a the decision of a desperate, despairing gunman. What happened to ‘doing no harm’? What happened to trying to do the most good—to care for the needs of others, to try and alleviate suffering and bring about ‘good’?
Pope Saint John Paul II said it best in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (11-12):
There are situations of acute poverty, anxiety or frustration in which the struggle to make ends meet, the presence of unbearable pain, or instances of violence, especially against women, make the choice to defend and promote life so demanding as sometimes to reach the point of heroism.
All this explains, at least in part, how the value of life can today undergo a kind of “eclipse”, even though conscience does not cease to point to it as a sacred and inviolable value, as is evident in the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person.
In fact, while the climate of widespread moral uncertainty can in some way be explained by the multiplicity and gravity of today’s social problems, and these can sometimes mitigate the subjective responsibility of individuals, it is no less true that we are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable “culture of death”.
This is where we find ourselves, in a ‘culture of death’ that is horrified at the mass killings in malls or schools, and rightly so, but fails to see the logical connection between those horrific acts and state sanctioned violence against the vulnerable, unwanted and suffering, even if it is the suffering who ask for it.
There are still those who will argue that people who choose to commit suicide only do violence to themselves, and that is therefore okay. Some may even argue that suicide is an appropriate exercise of their autonomy. However, we cannot deny that it is still an act of violence. If the gunman in La Loche had simply turned the gun on himself, we might have commented on the tragedy of his act. Then again, we probably would not even have known about it—also a great tragedy—it was his “right” to put an end to his despair, after all, was it not? Others will still say that this not a fair comparison as “assisted suicide” of those who suffer is somehow different. But really is it? In both cases the response is violence, not compassion and care.
Murder and suicide are two sides of the same coin according to the experts. They are correct, in this assessment. If we are to live in a compassionate society that protects the vulnerable, even from themselves and works to elevate all persons to their innate dignity, we must reject this culture of death, in all its forms and earnestly commit to finding solutions. The uncomfortable part of this is that we cannot rely on government alone to find those solutions. Yes, government should be working in that direction, but so should you and I as Christians be trying to reach out in love to those who despair, to those who struggle and who are in pain—whether they suffer in sterile hospital rooms, city streets, small towns or in our own homes. What is our response to the desperate woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, to the depressed and despairing, to the suffering and dying?
This is where being ‘pro life’ becomes personal.
The challenge before us is great. Where do we weigh in?