Thursday, March 21, 2013

War, Suicide and Confusion

Most of you have probably read a bit about the disabled veteran Tomas Young who penned an evisceration of a letter to former President George Bush and Dick Cheney, protesting the war that ruined not only his life but those of hundreds of thousands of other people. Young is evidently going to kill himself in protest but also because his disabilities limit him from living what he feels is a decent life. The letter is powerful insofar as it describes the enormous ramifications of the dozen years our young men and women have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as someone who believes that both Bush and Cheney should be tried as war criminals, I found much in it with which to sympathize. I thought of the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in 1963, protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese -- an act forever stamped in our consciousness because of the powerful photo that circulated afterward. What I had not thought about, though, was how Young's possible suicide affects the disability world and perhaps perpetuates the ignorance and cultural stereotypes that those of us in the disability world fight against every day. I read about this on two blogs this morning, and both have left me feeling confused. Here are the links to both:

Bad Cripple
Planet of the Blind

I'd love to know your take on this story beyond the obvious sympathy.


  1. As always, you've given me something substantial to chew on. As I am now nearly finished reading Solomon's "Far From the Tree," I feel as though I have a much better grasp of the nuances present in this case. That said, I think that the two pieces you linked to here are so right.

    I don't believe that it diminishes Young's message at all if he doesn't commit suicide. The validity of his complaints about the war remain - it was unjust, unnecessary, and done for ends other than what were purported. In fact, I believe that Young could become a very powerful 'poster child' for disabled and mentally ill veterans in this country, should he decide to.

    I suspect that, if he does kill himself. the media will squeeze the juice from that story for a week or so and then move on and nothing will change substantially. I am certain that his despair stems from, not only his poor treatment by the VA but also from the fact that he was not born disabled and will now have to learn to face an entirely new world that sees him differently than he sees himself. Such a difficult adjustment is probably common for injured persons facing a life of disability, but I do hope someone reaches out to him and helps him find a reason to live.

  2. I don't buy the perpetuating stereotypes argument at all. He is an individual making a decision for an individual person, himself, as we all should have a right to do.

    I have read a similar argument on one of those blogs you link to before when another disabled person chose to end her life, and I don't at all agree with that argument or that blogger's treatment of that woman's individual choice for herself.

    These people are acting as agents in their own life and have every right to make choices about their own life, as we all do. To hold them, or those who comment on their stories and support their right to make this choice, responsible for some greater worldview on the disabled does not make sense to me.

    While there is a political angle to his story, I don't think it's the one those blogs you linked to are suggesting. When people support someone's right to such an act, I believe it is because they feel we are all entitled to make choices for ourselves and that we would want to be afforded the same respect and empathy for our situations should we suffer something similar. It is not a condemnation of disability or promotion of the idea that a disabled life is not worth living.

    The point is that in his own estimation his individual life is too difficult for him to live; people support his right to make that call as he is the only one living in his shoes. That in no way suggests that they feel all who are disabled have lives not worth living. I don't see the connection there at all; to me it is so far-fetched a stretch to the point where discussion of it almost seems absurd to me.

    The argument that just because one person lives well with paralysis means another can too, is absurd. We all have our own individual situations. Some of the arguments of that nature come across as extremely self-centered, self-serving, and disrespectful to me.

    I'm not saying I think he should or shouldn't commit suicide. I am saying that is someone's individual life here and someone's individual pain, it's not a matter to be held up as some sort of representation of society's view on the disabled.

    I have my own health issues and believe as individuals we each are owners of our own experience, no one else knows exactly what each unique person experiences, even if they share that person's particular disability or are a caregiver give to them.

  3. I don't know. A lot of issues here. But I will say that what is a tolerable and even meaningful and enjoyable life for one might be a living hell for another and who can judge that beside the person in that position?
    Not me. But I tell you what- I don't want anyone else to decide that for me either, should the time ever come.
    Now. As to the political side of the situation- Bush and Cheney are war criminals or just plain criminals and there were a lot of valid points made in the letter, leaving the whole issue of suicide out of it.
    When will any sort of justice be served?

  4. Elizabeth, you've forced us to go beyond what is easy to see in this story, that Bush and Cheney committed murder in sending our boys and girls to a war waged only to enrich them and theirs. I find Tomas's letter to be powerful, searing, all the more so because he is dying. But when I think of his death as a choice he is making, it gives me pause. Does his choice to die undermine "Bad Cripple's" choice to find what is possible and good in his circumstances? I don't think so. I think their consciousness of themselves differ one from the other, and Tomas has not had the support he might need to make his life tolerable. I pray that support finds him before he leaves this world. This blazingly eloquent indictment of his is proof that he has so much more to offer this world. I hope he stays in it, and keeps the spotlight on the injustice of the war he was sent to fight, and denies Bush and Cheney the easy dismissal of him that will surely follow his VSED.

    Oh God, Elizabeth, you've given us so much to consider! I'm sending this to my son who is currently writing a research paper on whether continuous sedation at the end of life is merely an extended form of euthanasia, and is one form more acceptable than the other, and if so why? Might VSED also exist in that universe? I don't know.

  5. Elizabeth, Thank you for this post and the links to the other two. There is some common ground here in the world of the very old. Our society views aging as a disability.

  6. The only thing I know for sure is that NONE of us know for sure what we would do until we are in that niece(light of my life) and I have made a pact..if either one of us find our self there we are going to get ourselves to Hawaii and sit on the beach and figure things out...I'm counting on her!

  7. What a brave man and what a tragic story. I hope his letter goes viral.
    - Karen

  8. Okay, so here's what I think. Several of your commenters have made reference to Young's individual choice. I certainly agree that he is an individual, an agent, and therefore has the right to make decisions about his own life and death. I'm not suggesting that this shouldn't be the case.

    The disability rights perspective, though, says that we're living in a culture in which disability is deeply, pervasively, and often unconsciously stigmatized. People with disabilities aren't considered fully human much of the time. Disability is unproblematically framed as "suffering" and "dying," even when those labels aren't at all accurate (my daughter, for instance, doesn't "suffer from" Down syndrome). Our society has set up all kinds of barriers--literal (like Bad Cripple mentions), another level of literal (hello, SSI application and the struggle involved), and metaphorical (people without disabilities saying, "I would rather die than have a disability").

    SO: in an oppressive social context, someone making a decision to commit suicide in part because he is now in an oppressed social category, should raise the concern of members of the society. The message here isn't simply that he's protesting the war--the message is also that our society has made disability seem like such a living hell that he'd rather die. We can change the war, and we can also change the oppressive social context.

    Those are my thoughts for now.

  9. thank you Elizabeth -- I don't have anything profound to say. i had not read these pieces. thanks for sharing them and giving my brain/heart a workout!

  10. I read the article about Tomas Young. He's depressed, not without reason, and I respect his right to end his life but...

    He is angry it seems, he was lied to, that ago old lie that my own father was given. The lie that says it's noble to die for your country. Except war is just a big fucking mess and the first casualty of war is truth, always.

    And there is the second problem, how shitty disabled people are treated in our society. My own daughter, now confined to a wheelchair because why? Because the world we live in can't cope with her behavior, her communication, her anxiety and probably her own anger.

    My mother is dead and gone now, time to turn my attention back to my daughter and make life better for her again.

  11. I feel like I can't wrap my head around this. I felt his message was very strong and true but I also feel uneasy about this whole thing.

    I think people kill themselves because they are depressed, not because they are disabled. I think disability must sometimes trigger depression. Other than that, it all feels to slippery to touch.



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