08 September 2010

Could Never Happen

"Due process, they call it," he growled. "Due process of mass, state-sponsored suicide. With all of society's blessings."

"Well," said the visitor, "it's certainly better than letting them die horribly, by degrees."

"Is it? Better for whom? The street cleaners? Better to have your living corpses walk to a central disposal station while they can still walk? Less public spectacle? Less horror lying around? Less disorder? A few million corpses lying around might start a rebellion against those responsible. That's what you and the government mean by better, isn't it?"

"I wouldn't know about the government," said the visitor, with only a trace of stiffness in his voice. "What I meant by better was 'more merciful.' I have no intention of arguing your moral theology with you. If you think you have a soul that God would send to Hell if you chose to die painlessly instead of horribly, then go ahead and think so. But you're in a minority, you know. I disagree, but there's nothing to argue about."

"Forgive me," said Abbot Zerchi. "I wasn't getting ready to argue moral theology with you. I was speaking only of this spectacle of mass euthanasia in terms of human motivation. The very existence of the Radiation Disaster Act, and like laws in other countries, is the plainest possible evidence that governments were fully aware of the consequences of another war, but instead of trying to make the crime impossible, they tried to provide in advance for the consequences of the crime. Are the implications of that fact meaningless to you, Doctor?"

"Of course not, Father. Personally, I am a pacifist. But for the present we're stuck with the world as it is. And if they couldn't agree on a way to make an act of war impossible, then it is better to have some provisions for coping with the consequences than to have no provisions."

"Yes and no. Yes, if it's in anticipation of somebody else's crime. No, if it's in anticipation of one's own. And especially no if the provision to soften the consequences are criminal too."

The visitor shrugged. "Like euthanasia? I'm sorry, Father, I feel that the laws of society are what makes something a crime or not a crime. I'm aware that you don't agree. And there can be bad laws, ill-conceived, true. But in this case, I think we have a good law. If I thought I had such a thing as a soul, and that there was an angry God in Heaven, I might agree with you."

Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. "You don't have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily."

The visitor laughed politely. "A semantic confusion."

"True. But which of us is confused? Are you sure?"

"Let's not quarrel, Father. I'm not with the Mercy Cadre. I work on the Exposure Survey Team.

We don't kill anybody."

Abbot Zerchi gazed at him in silence for a moment. The visitor was a short muscular man with a pleasant round face and a balding pate that was sunburned and freckled. He wore a green serge uniform, and a cap with the Green Star insignia lay in his lap.

Why quarrel, indeed? The man was a medical worker, not an executioner. Some of the Green Star's relief work was admirable. Occasionally it was even heroic. That in some instances it wrought evil, according to Zerchi's belief, was no reason to regard its good works as tainted. The bulk of society favored it, and its workers were in good faith. The doctor had tried to be friendly. His request had seemed simple enough. He had been neither demanding nor officious about it. Still, the abbot hesitated before saying yes.

"The work you want to do here--will it take long?"

The doctor shook his head. "Two days at most, I think. We have two mobile units. We can bring them into your courtyard, hitch the two trailers together, and start right to work. We'll take the obvious radiation cases, and the wounded, first. We treat only the most urgent cases. Our job is clinical testing. The sick ones will get treatment at an emergency camp."

"And the sickest ones get something else at a mercy camp?"

The worker frowned. "Only if they want to go. Nobody makes them go."

"But you write out the permit that lets them go."

"I've given some red tickets, yes. I may have to this time. Here--" He fumbled in his jacket pocket and brought out a red cardboard form, something like a shipping label with a loop of wire for attaching it to a buttonhole or a belt loop. He tossed it on the desk. "A blank 'crit-dose' form. There it is. Read it. It tells the man he's sick, very sick. And here--here's a green ticket too. It tells him he's well and has nothing to worry about. Look at the red one carefully! 'Estimated exposure in radiation units.' 'Blood count.' 'Urinalysis.' On one side, it's just like the green one. On the other side, the green one's blank, but look at the back of the red one. The fine print--it's directly quoted from Public Law 10-WR-3E. It has to be there. The law requires it. It has to be read to him. He has to be told his rights. What he does about it is his own affair. Now, if you'd rather we parked the mobile units down the highway, we can--"

"You just read it to him, do you? Nothing else?"

The doctor paused. "It has to be explained to him, if he doesn't understand it." He paused again, gathering irritation. "Good Lord, Father, when you tell a man he's a hopeless case, what are you going to say? Read him a few paragraphs of the law, show him the door, and say: 'Next, please!'? 'You're going to die, so good day'? Of course you don't read him that and nothing else, not if you have any human feeling at all!"

"I understand that. What I want to know is something else. Do you, as a physician, advise hopeless cases to go to a mercy camp?"

"I--" The medic stopped and closed his eyes. He rested his forehead on his hand. He shuddered slightly. "Of course I do," he said finally. "If you'd seen what I've seen, you would too. Of course I do."

"You'll not do it here."

"Then we'll--" The doctor quenched an angry outburst. He stood up, started to put on his cap, then paused. He tossed the cap on the chair and walked over to the window. He looked gloomily down at the courtyard, then out at the highway. He pointed. "There's the roadside park. We can set up shop there. But it's two miles. Most of them will have to walk." He glanced at Abbot Zerchi, then looked broodingly down into the courtyard again. "Look at them. They're sick, hurt, fractured, frightened. The children too. Tired, lame, and miserable. You'd let them be herded off down the highway to sit in the dust and the sun and--"

"I don't want it to be that way," said the abbot. "Look--you were just telling me how a man-made law made it mandatory for you to read and explain this to a critical radiation case. I offered no objection to that in itself. Render unto Caesar to that extent, since the law demands it of you. Can you not, then, understand that I am subject to another law, and that it forbids me to allow you or anyone else on this property, under my rule, to counsel anyone to do what the Church calls evil?"

"Oh, I understand well enough."

"Very well. You need only make me one promise, and you may use the courtyard."

"What promise?"

"Simply that you won't advise anyone to go to a 'mercy camp.' Limit yourself to diagnosis. If you find hopeless radiation cases, tell them what the law forces you to tell them, be as consoling as you wish, but don't tell them to go kill themselves."

The doctor hesitated. "I think it would be proper to make such a promise with respect to patients who belong to your Faith."

Abbot Zerchi lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said finally, "but that's not enough."

"Why? Others are not bound by your principles. If a man is not of your religion, why should you refuse to allow--" He choked off angrily.

"Do you want an explanation?"


"Because if a man is ignorant of the fact that something is wrong, and acts in ignorance, he incurs no guilt, provided natural reason was not enough to show him that it was wrong. But while ignorance may excuse the man, it does not excuse the act, which is wrong in itself. If I permitted the act simply because the man is ignorant that it is wrong, then I would incur guilt, because I do know it to be wrong. It is really that painfully simple."

"Listen, Father. They sit there and they look at you. Some scream. Some cry. Some just sit there. All of them say, 'Doctor, what can I do?' And what am I supposed to answer? Say nothing? Say, 'You can die, that's all.' What would you say?"


"Yes, you would, wouldn't you? Listen, pain is the only evil I know about. It's the only one I can fight."

"Then God help you."

"Antibiotics help me more."

Abbot Zerchi groped for a sharp reply, found one, but swiftly swallowed it. He searched for a blank piece of paper and a pen and pushed them across the desk. "Just write: 'I will not recommend euthanasia to any patient while at this abbey,' and sign it. Then you can use the courtyard."

"And if I refuse?"

"Then I suppose they'll have to drag themselves two miles down the road."

"Of all the merciless--"

"On the contrary. I've offered you an opportunity to do your work as required by the law you recognize, without overstepping the law I recognize. Whether they go down the road or not is up to you."

The doctor stared at the blank page. "What is so magic about putting it in writing?"

"I prefer it that way."

He bent silently over the desk and wrote. He looked at what he had written, then slashed his signature under it and straightened. "All right, there's your promise. Do you think it's worth any more than my spoken word?"

"No. No indeed." The abbot folded the note and tucked it into his coat. "But it's here in my pocket, and you know it's here in my pocket, and I can look at it occasionally, that's all. Do you keep promises, by the way, Doctor Cors?"

The medic stared at him for a moment. "I'll keep it." He grunted, then turned on his heel and stalked out.


Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz


Anonymous said...

grim and hopeful

Anonymous said...

Very apropos. As I recall, the later run-in between the abbot's peaceful demonstrators at the euthanasia clinic and the police was very well drawn, showing how the innocent are set up to look bad by those with ulterior motives. How did Mr. Miller foresee this would be coming, writing as he did in the late 50's?

Jim Cole

Fr. Andrew said...

Sarah Palin reads "A Canticle for Leibowitz?"

Anonymous said...

One of the most poignant moments of a book filled with them. This is one of the best apocalyptic novels.

Timman, which era was did you find the most interesting?


X said...

Sarah Palin reads?