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Monday, June 3, 2013
In his op-ed column regarding the controversial burial of Boston bomber suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev (“Even criminals ought to have a resting place,” May 19), Bob Ray Sanders, after acknowledging the understandable outrage of protesters who opposed having the perpetrator of such a horrific attack interred in their community, writes, “But we must not allow our disgust to corrupt our humanity.”
Sanders’ comment reminds me of famous stories of rage against the dead corrupting the living, stories that reveal hard truths about the dark challenges to our humanity. The first occurs in “The Iliad,” Homer’s epic account of the Trojan War.
Achilles, the fiercest of Greek warriors, kills Hector, renowned Trojan prince, in combat, but death is not enough to satiate his rage against the man who had killed his best friend, Patroclus, so Achilles drags the corpse behind his chariot back and forth in front of the walls of Troy, while Hector’s family looks on horrified. Still not satisfied, he keeps his enemy’s body as a trophy, denying the family solace of a proper burial.
The Trojan King, Priam, is forced to go begging for the return of his son’s body, uttering the heartrending plea, “Revere the gods, Achilles. Pity me in my own right, / remember your own father! I deserve more pity . . . / I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before — / I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.”
In “Antigone,” Sophocles’ tragic play of civil disobedience, the body of a rebellious brother who attempted to usurp the throne of Thebes becomes a pawn in a conflict of political authority and state security vs. family bonds and religious duty.
When Polyneices and his brother, Eteocles, who opposes him, kill each other in combat, Creon, the newly crowned king, decrees that the “treacherous” brother does not deserve a proper burial and is to be left to rot on the battlefield. Anyone who disobeys this order will be executed as an enemy of the state.
Antigone, sister of the slain brothers, ignores this order on the grounds that divine law and family ties trump secular rule. After her arrest, Antigone, in response to Creon’s accusation that her actions dishonor the patriotism of the loyal brother while celebrating the treason of the rebellious one, states the simple but profound justification for respecting the dead: “No matter — Death longs for the same rites for all.”
The main difference between these two stories is that Achilles is moved to tears by Priam’s appeal for compassion, and returns Hector’s body with promises to honor the traditional period of mourning and burial. Creon, however, consumed with anger and hubris at having his authority challenged, insists on carrying out Antigone’s death sentence, despite pleas from his own family (his son, Haemon, is engaged to her) for leniency. In mockery for her devotion to sacred funeral tradition, Antigone is buried alive in a cave.
For millenia, Antigone has served as a model of human dignity in the face of unjust laws and condemnation, inspiring nonviolent activists from Thoreau to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., but it is Achilles — the man of “murderous, doomed rage,” Homer calls him — who offers the more hopeful example for recovering one’s humanity when devastated and, yes, enraged, by inhumane acts of men like Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It is his love for his own father, evoked by Priam, that softens Achilles’ anger. Even the most hardened and brutal of warriors can be moved by love.
It is love for a larger family — the family of humankind — that Martha Mullen, the private citizen who arranged for Tsarnaev’s burial in Virginia, invoked in explaining her unpopular actions: “And Jesus tells us to — in the parable of the Good Samaritan — to love your neighbor as yourself. And your neighbor is not just someone you belong with but someone who is alien to you. That was the biggest motivation, is that, you know, if I’m going to live my faith, then I’m going to do that which is uncomfortable and not necessarily that’s what comfortable.”
The kind of love she describes requires embracing a world beyond one’s own self-interests; it requires seeing humanity in our enemies. Small wonder we find hatred so tenacious, so perversely satisfying. Such love requires a moral courage that is daunting but also transforming.
It is such heroes, literary and real, who, through the words of their creators, mortal and divine, offer us a healing and humane response in times of unpredictable violence and pain.
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