Wednesday, August 18, 2004

"The Quality of Death"

"Numbers do not capture the quality of death that remains the main issue for those still alive. In any case most victims meet a different fate [from those whose executions are officially recognized]. The pattern is for agents to pick someone up from work, or at night from his house. No explanations are proffered as there would be in an official killing. Unlike Central American 'disappearances' in which the state denies complicity, the Ba'ath give the event a macabre twist. What one assumes to be the corpse is brought back weeks or maybe months later and delivered to the head of the family in a sealed box. A death certificate is produced for signature to the effect that the person has died of fire, swimming, or other such accident. Someone is allowed to accompany police and box for a ceremony, but at no time is he or she permitted to see the corpse. The cost of the proceedings is demanded in advance, and the whole thing is over within hours of the first knock on the door.

The gap between the formality and the reality of such a death can henceforth be acted out as a gigantic lie by all concerned, including the victim's family who now are able to announce the event and carry out the appropriate public mourning ceremony. The lie that lives has replaced the grisly truth buried in the casket."

- Kanan Makiya, "Republic of Fear" (1989), ch. 2.