Titles of Ignobility: Suicide as Secession
SEPTEMBER 21, 2011 by THOMAS S. SZASZ
According to the World Health Organization, the United States stands 39th on the list of countries ranked by suicide rate. Despite this, nowhere else in the world is suicide so passionately medicalized and prohibited as in the United States.
Why do people kill themselves? Because they are mentally ill, assert the mental health experts, a message the media blindly repeats. “Mental illness kills.” In this view suicide is the result of mental illness, just as death from cancer is the result of bodily illness. This is patent nonsense, mindless belief in a literalized metaphor endowed with the power of agency.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health the persons most likely to kill themselves are the young and the old. Its website adds: “A person who appears suicidal should not be left alone and needs immediate mental-health treatment.” This is anti-suicide propaganda, pure and simple.
The actions of the suicide speak louder than the words of persons who presume to speak for them, while trying as best they can to deprive them of dignity and liberty. The most plausible explanation-motive for suicide at any age is the desire to die. Although every person’s reason for killing himself is uniquely personal, as a broad generalization we might say that the young choose voluntary death to escape the pain and responsibility of having to make a life for themselves, the old to escape the consequences of loss of autonomy due to disease and disability.
The suicidal person wants to get away from his life, his social environment. His action is best viewed as a form of emigration or secession. Jean Améry, the Austrian Holocaust survivor and bitter opponent of coerced suicide prevention protested, “I don’t like the word Selbstmord [self-murder] . . . I prefer to speak of Freitod [voluntary death]. . . . [T]here is no carcinoma that devours me, no infarction that fells me, no uremic crisis that takes away my breath. I am that which lays hands upon me, who dies after taking barbiturates, ‘from hand to mouth.’”
Jefferson on Suicide
In 1779 the Virginia legislature was considering a bill to repeal the punishment for suicide. Jefferson supported it and offered the following statement on its behalf:
Suicide is by law punishable by forfeiture of chattels. This bill exempts it from forfeiture. The suicide injures the State less than he who leaves it with his effects. If the latter then not be punished, the former should not. As to the example, we need not fear its influence. Men are too much attached to life, to exhibit frequent instances of depriving themselves of it. At any rate, the quasi-punishment of confiscation will not prevent it. . . . That men in general, too, disapprove of this severity, is apparent from the constant practice of juries finding the suicide in a state of insanity; because they have no other way of saving the forfeiture. Let it then be done away.
Jefferson went further. He considered suicide a perfectly rational act, viewing it as a kind of emigration. In his correspondence with Dr. Samuel Brown, a professor of medicine at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, concerning the use of toxic plants for killing oneself he wrote:
The most elegant thing of that kind known is a preparation of the Jamestown weed, Datura-Stramonium, invented by the French in the time of Robespierre. Every man of firmness carried it constantly in his pocket to anticipate the guillotine. It brings on the deep sleep as quietly as fatigue does the ordinary sleep, without the least struggle. . . . It seems far preferable to the Venesection of the Romans, the Hemlock of the Greeks, and the Opium of the Turks. . . . There are ills in life as desperate and intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief.
The term “Stramonium” is originally from the Greek strychnos (nightshade) and manikos (mad). All parts of Datura plants contain significant quantities of the alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, chemicals that may be fatal if ingested by humans or animals. In the United States the plant is called “Jamestown weed” after the city in Virginia where British soldiers were drugged with it while attempting to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Today a person who so casually informs another of the suicidal potential of a readily available substance runs the risk of being charged with the crime of “assisting suicide.”
The result of this cultural-legal atmosphere is the destruction of the public’s trust in members of the medical profession and other formerly respected authorities. While suicide prohibitions—usually called “suicide prevention measures”—have not succeeded in preventing suicides, they have succeeded in preventing people from having an honest, private conversation about life and death. Those who trust mental health professionals with their innermost thoughts are likely to find themselves punished with psychiatric incarceration and lifelong stigmatization. Suicidal persons and their would-be helpers alike are paralyzed by prohibitionist censorship, deception, and legislation requiring the betrayal of trust. The first and major victims of the war on suicide, as in all wars, are liberty and truth.
Psychiatrists are expected—legally, medically, and socially—to prevent individuals from killing themselves. As professionals they are also expected to lie and withhold information about the subject. The result is that people can no longer trust physicians, teachers, science writers, or journalists, virtually all of whom have been co-opted, suborned, seduced, or intimidated by the anti-suicide apparatus of the Mental Health System and the Therapeutic State.
Emigration is “leav[ing] one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere” (Webster’s). Secession is the peaceful separation of political entities. Analogically, we may view divorce as marital secession, and suicide as personal secession. Both terms refer to and are in part synonymous with “separation.”
Viewed as emigrant, the suicide moves from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Regarded as a personal secessionist, he separates himself from his family and society. Diagnosed as incompetent to know his own best interest, the suicide is declared insane, becomes the property of the federal government, and is stamped with the title of ignobility.
In the traditional religious worldview the sole agent with legitimate power to decide who should die is God, the Creator. In the modern medical view the sole such agent is the Therapeutic State. Secession—defiance of control by church and State—is the ultimate escape from oppression, the ultimate declaration of freedom.
According to Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, “No title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States,” forbidding the State from ennobling and favoring a class of Americans. The Constitution does not forbid the United States from degrading and disfavoring a class of Americans. Formerly, societies had “nobles”—dukes and princes and kings—persons people were expected to look up to and respect. Today, societies have ignobles—depressives and schizophrenics and suicidals—nonpersons people are expected to look down on and disrespect.