Frontline: The Suicide Tourist

If you've never watched the PBS documentary news program Frontline, I encourage you to start. Actually, I more than encourage it, I fucking demand it. We live a world where television is laden with programs of little to no merit. Outside of some great comedy, drama and sports, we aren't provide much real, incisive media. Network television news magazines like Dateline NBC and the like tend to be glorified tabloids focusing on titillating audiences with crime, sex offense and dramatized fear mongering. Their existence seems predicated on people being too stupid to ask difficult questions, and our drive to avoid difficult knowledge in a high-gloss world. Frontline digs deeper. It asks the tough questions and addresses things we forget to know, forget to learn. And does so with grace, dignity, and merit.

Just this evening, I watched their recent expose entitled "The Suicide Tourist," which centers on the final days in the life of Craig Ewert, a 59 year old man diagnosed with ALS whose quick deterioration prompts his decision to take part in assisted suicide. Watching it means so much more than any summary I could provide, but in short, Mr. Ewert's quick loss of control over his own body, over his ability to live the way any person deserves to live, leads him to Switzerland where he enlists an organization called Dignitas to guide him out of suffering and allows him to maintain the independence and dignity he has remaining. You can watch the full documentary by clicking on the link above, or by going directly to the video here.

The reason for this, that I'd write about something so sad, so emotionally taxing to watch (and believe me it was, and continues to be as I write) is that it is a topic of constant debate and great philosophical importance. And in this specific case, media has provided an incredible forum for its display. Like The Antlers album Hospice, or a book like Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, "The Suicide Tourist" puts the value of life, and the terror of suffering at the forefront. We all too often shy away from death in modern society. We focus our compasses on youth, beauty and the stupidity that comes with both, and forget (or at least actively try to) the difficulties of illness and the gracefulness of age. Where Hospice focuses on the dialogue between the dying and the one who must watch his love die, and Norwegian Wood looks at the confusion and suffering and occurs silently inside even the most outwardly bright and young, "The Suicide Tourist" affords a view of the metered, philosophical and heartbreaking decisiveness that chooses death over pain, anguish and paralyzed terror. Craig Ewert sums up in several interviews how though he is not tired of living, he does not consider existing paralyzed within a shell of his former self to be life. And in a painfully beautiful moment, he argues the moral complexity of suicide and making such a choice before he is no longer capable of controlling his own body. He asks (and I'm summarizing) why we assume that a body, barely conscious, unable to speak, but still and not writhing, is considered to be peaceful. He wonders if Hell itself is not being trapped within a form without control over it, without the individual characteristics of life at one's disposal. This is a tragic point of discussion. Ought we be able to decide when to stop the ride of life and get off? And why should it be considered more brave to exist in continual pain and drudgery than to take up arms against misfortune and alter our own paths?

This argument is as old as life itself, but Shakespeare made some quintessential points in Hamlet, both through the melodramatic nature of Ophelia's suicide, but also in Hamlet's arguments about the nature of existence. Is merely considering action, thinking of options, but not acting a mark of a life lived? Hamlet finally determines it is not. He decides to take action (the To Be or Not To Be soliloquy) as that is the only way to assure he is not merely an observer of his misfortunes, but an actor in his own existence. And we, as Americans, where individuality is predicated on the idea that can do, be or become anything we want to, seems to argue for the same right, the same ability. In "The Suicide Tourist," Craig Ewert "take[s] arms against a sea of troubles/ And, by opposing, end[s] them." And I don't think the question is whether it was right or wrong, so much as whether any of us would choose to do the same, or if we'd be content to "suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." Where does our individualism end? Where we choose it to? Or where our society decides? Are our bodies our own, or do they belong to our culture? I don't have answers to these questions, but they need to be asked.

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