Death wasn't the primary thing David's passing brought to mind for me. At least not death alone. I've spent the last five days thinking about a certain subset of death, one that had nothing to do with David's. I've been thinking about murder.
David died of cancer, and while tumors are called malignant they are neither sentient nor intentional. His death was a natural one, aided and abetted perhaps by polluters and irresponsible industries, but ultimately caused by a failure of DNA. It was preceded by a lengthy warning period and ample opportunity for all those who cared about him to make their peace and say goodbye. Despite these facts it has still hit his family hard, and left weeping misery and anguish in its wake.
Death may not be preventable but individual deaths are. At the very least they can be delayed for decades. The deaths that are most preventable are those caused by intentional human action. A person can choose to kill or they can choose to let live. A person can choose tragedy or they can choose mercy. I'm grappling with why the second choice seems so damned unpopular.
Killing is deeply ingrained in the cultures of virtually every major civilization in the world. In fact one might reasonably argue that one of the necessary elements for cultural success is the willingness to kill. After all if a civilization that kills encounters one that doesn't, well the first can easily impose its will and either eliminate or enslave the second. Likewise killing within a single society can be evolutionarily advantageous. The thug with the gun has the jump on the man with only a zither.
And yet if each individual life is something sacred, unique, and invaluable, then we cannot allow killing to be considered just part of the human experience. We should not accept it and, as certain people suggest, merely make sure that we are more likely to be the killer than the killed. Human life is not something to be thrown away to make a point or obtain more gasoline. It is an end unto itself.
I'm not sure what I'd recommend on the practical level to stem the tide of death. Gun control seems like a good idea until you realize that you cannot control guns except with more guns. If Smith and Wesson was stopped from producing pistols people would just smuggle in Ak-47s. If owning a gun were punishable by life in prison than those with guns would simply be more likely to shoot when discovered. It's all a tangled global mess and if you pull one thread you have no idea what effect it will have on another.
We can certainly choose to reduce violence by voting for politicians who are against the death penalty (There is no excuse for killing another person, especially when there is a demonstrable chance that he might be innocent. None. Zero. It's monstrous.) and against aggressive wars (We've lost a thousand American lives in Iraq. A thousand Davids cut down in the primes of their youths. If you include Iraqi dead the toll is enough to bring you sobbing to your knees.) Most of us manage to avoid murdering anyone in our own lives. It's not enough though. The change must be greater and ultimately it must be cultural. We must fight back against the glorification of violence that seeps into the unconscious of so many and makes them forget that when we choose violence we profane life itself. We must fight not by banning it but by offering alternatives and arguments, by refusing to perpetuate it in our own lives, by remembering that we draw our models for the world and behavior not just from what we know but what we see, and when the screen ignores the reality of war it makes the viewer likely to do the same. We can work to end the pernicious role of religions and philosophies that teach that killing is okay and that this life is only temporary and thus of little value. Those ideas have cost more lives than any weapon design or lunatic with a gun.
I'm not so naive to believe that there can ever be a complete end to violence and killing in this world. We have to try though. Utopianism may be impractical but without it we are left with nothing more than accepting sad realities and doing our best to cope with, rather than change, them. If we work towards a society with no violence we are likely to end up with one that has significantly less. If we hadn't wasted $100 billion a year killing in Iraq we could have spent the money trying to cure cancer or stop the spread of AIDS. We could have spent it shoring up the New Orleans levees and saved uncounted thousands from perishing in the greatest natural disaster this country has ever known.
Death is always a tragedy for the person who is dying and those who love him, but it's even more of a catastrophe when it's something that could have been prevented by something so simple as not pulling a trigger or pressing a button. David died when his body betrayed him. I dearly wish more people were given that chance.
P.S. For those who think it's disrespectful for me to talk about violence when remembering David I should note that this was a cause very near to his heart. One of the charities he's asked for contributions to in lieu of flowers is the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. His family had been victimized by violent crime and it was one of the driving forces in his life to work to reduce it. Reiterating these ideas would probably have been worth more to him than my rehashing personal experiences from a long time ago or talking about what a kind, giving, person he was. He has passed on. Others can be saved.