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Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, Selling Death

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

If you think about it, since 9/11, death has been the great topic of conversation in this country and the crucial building block for the national security and global surveillance state whose shadow has fallen across Washington. It has been the selling point for the loss of American liberties, the assault on American privacy, and the transformation of that city into a war capital overseeing a permanent global conflict. All the building, all the investment, and all the deaths elsewhere, American and foreign, were part of a project raised not so much on the bodies of the dead of 9/11, as on the prospective bodies of Americans from the Canadian to the Mexican border, who were going to die if our "safety" wasn't assured by endless trillions of dollars, invasions and kidnappings, drone assassination campaignsspecial ops hunter/killer teams, and so much else. All of it was supposed to offer a near-100% guarantee that death, that global visitor, would not arrive in one specific way: via a terror attack. From that and that alone, Americans were to be made as safe and secure as it was possible to be.

In the name of death, the word "homeland" was embedded in our lives and became as American as apple pie, while every death in that "homeland" at the hands of terrorist wannabes -- from Fort Hood, Texas, to Boston, Massachusetts -- played onscreen 24/7, day after day, as the hysteria built and vast sums of money were poured into the project of making us ever more "secure." Meanwhile, when death paid a visit to Americans armed to the teeth but without an al-Qaeda mask, as it did at the Washington Navy Yard recently, people went on with their lives.

In these years, it turned out not to matter that terror attacks were the least of the lethal dangers facing Americans compared to, among other things, the car, the cigarettethe flood, the hurricane, or of course the gun, which by suicide (19,000 dead), accident, or murder, was slaughtering tens of thousands annually, not to speak of so many other dangers against which no one was offering any guarantees of safety or security. Money poured into labs working to save Americans from prospective death by chemical or biological weaponry, while the funds to protect Americans from food-borne illness (which kills approximately 3,000 people a year) were regularly endangered.

In the twenty-first century, it was not death itself -- no stranger to this country -- but the fear of prospective death by terror that settled comfortably into Washington. It spawned a homeland-security-industrial complex and gave birth to lobbyists of every sort who descended on Congress as front men not just for their burgeoning companies, but for prospective death-by-terror. They were eager to hire themselves out as death's consultants on how to make a profit off possible end games.

It's been quite a spectacle, this dance with future death. The marketing of death (and our safety from it) has been on the mind of Lewis Lapham, too. In the Fall issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, he steps onto the dance floor himself and takes death by the hand. As always, his magazine unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic, in this case that topic of all topics. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) TomDispatch thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham's introduction to the new issue. Tom

Memento Mori 
The Death of American Exceptionalism -- and of Me 
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.

-- Woody Allen

I admire the stoic fortitude, but at the age of 78 I know I won't be skipping out on the appointment, and I notice that it gets harder to remember just why it is that I'm not afraid to die. My body routinely produces fresh and insistent signs of its mortality, and within the surrounding biosphere of the news and entertainment media it is the fear of death -- 24/7 in every shade of hospital white and doomsday black -- that sells the pharmaceutical, political, financial, film, and food products promising to make good the wish to live forever. The latest issue of my magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, therefore comes with an admission of self-interest as well as an apology for the un-American activity, death, that is its topic. The taking time to resurrect the body of its thought in LQ offered a chance to remember that the leading cause of death is birth.

I count it a lucky break to have been born in a day and age when answers to the question "Why do I have to die?" were still looked for in the experimental laboratories of art and literature as well as in the teachings of religion. The problem hadn't yet been referred to the drug and weapons industries, to the cosmetic surgeons and the neuroscientists, and as a grammar-school boy in San Francisco during the Second World War, I was fortunate to be placed in the custody of Mr. Charles Mulholland. A history teacher trained in the philosophies of classical antiquity, Mr. Mulholland was fond of posting on his blackboard long lists of noteworthy last words, among them those of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas More, and Stonewall Jackson.

The messages furnished need-to-know background on the news bulletins from Guadalcanal and Omaha Beach, and they made a greater impression on me than probably was expected or intended. By the age of 10, raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, it never once had occurred to me to entertain the prospect of an afterlife. Eternal life may have been granted to the Christian martyrs delivered to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, possibly also to the Muslim faithful butchered in Jerusalem by Richard the Lionheart, but without the favor of Allah or early admission to a Calvinist state of grace, how was one to formulate a closing remark worthy of Mr. Mulholland's blackboard?

The question came up in the winter of 1953 during my freshman year at Yale College, when I contracted a rare and particularly virulent form of meningitis. The doctors in the emergency room at Grace-New Haven Hospital rated the odds of my survival at no better than a hundred to one. To the surprise of all present, I responded to the infusion of several new drugs never before tested in combination. For two days, drifting in and out of consciousness in a ward reserved for patients without hope of recovery, I had ample chance to think a great thought or turn a noble phrase, possibly to dream of the wizard Merlin in an oak tree or behold a vision of the Virgin Mary. Nothing came to mind.

Nor do I remember being horrified. Astonished, but not horrified. Here was death making routine rounds, not to be seen wearing a Halloween costume but clearly in attendance. The man in the next bed died on the first night, the woman to his left on the second. Apparently an old story, but before being admitted to the hospital as a corpse in all but name, it was not one that I had guessed was also my own. I hadn't been planning any foreign travel, and yet here I was, waiting for my passport to be stamped at the once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination that doesn't sell postcards and from whose museum galleries no traveler returns.

Minus three toes destroyed by the disease, I left the hospital four months later knowing that my reprieve was temporary, subject to cancellation on short notice. Blessed by what I took to be the smile and gift of fortune, I resolved to spend as much time as possible in the present tense, to rejoice in the wonders of the world, chase the rainbows of the spirit, indulge the pleasures of the flesh, defy the foul fiend, go and catch a falling star.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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