Last night, the Incredible Dement shocked the nation. Appearing on BBC2, armed with only a Euro-Rover ticket and a large hat, he toured the Continent, boldly seeking out destinations where others fear to tread. Everywhere he went, it was either raining or snowing, for these were the lands that God forgot. Soon it became apparent that, when the ID was on the road, all roads led, not to sun and the Eternal City, but to snow, and an another altogether different type of Eternity. They led to Zurich, to a dapper blue house tucked away on an industrial estate – a planning requirement, you understand – where a Mr Peter Smedley, late of the canning concern, was about to do to himself what his family had spent decades doing to peas. The only difference was that Smedley would emerge not in a can, but an urn. He had come to Dignitas, to die.
Outside, it was snowing. Mr Smedley approached his canning experience with a light Scott of the Antarctic touch. One expected him at any moment to say that he was just going outside, and might be some time. But it was not to be that way. In the cold light of the camera, Smedley downed his canning draught. Outside, it continued to snow. Inside, he exchanged light but tender words of comfort with his wife. Then he coughed, groaned, called for water, groaned again, cleared his throat, snorted, snored, and died. Just like that. The ID announced ‘a result’, and even had a good word for the snow, it being the ‘right kind’ of snow, before declaring Smedley a hero, the bravest man he had ever met. That is as may be. Certainly, Smedley showed courage and fortitude. But in Dr No’s eyes, the real hero, or rather heroine, was the Lady from Rhodesia, Smedley’s wife. It was her courage, her fortitude, and her dignity that was outstanding, so much so that it made the hardened Dr No want to weep.
Now, this programme was well made, even if it was barely one stop short of an advertorial for Dignitas and, more generally, assisted suicide. Many column inches have already been written about it, and no doubt many more have yet to come, focusing on the merits or otherwise of broadcasting footage of real death (Dr No is of the view that it was right to air it), and on the neo-sacred right to self-determination for those of sound mind and settled intent (and here Dr No finds that in the abstraction of the debating chamber, this right, taken on its own, is unassailable). So, instead, Dr No is going to consider two other, and to his eyes neglected but important, related matters, which the film did touch on, but only glancingly: the mindset of those who choose to die, and the effect of their actions on those they leave behind.
The fact remains that, however much one may wrap it in Dignitas snow, the act of suicide is at its root an aggressive act: the wilful termination of a human life. But aggression is a strange thing: it doesn’t have to be violent and active; instead, it can at times be quiet and passive – so called passive-aggression, such that the passive-aggressive individual is as a ‘snowball with rocks inside’: outwardly perhaps fluffy, but inwardly certainly barbed. And, in a discomforting way, sentient, planned open assisted suicide is the ultimate act of passive-aggression: the ultimate ‘f*ck you!’ – however gently and politely it is said.
There was a telling moment in the programme, towards Smedley’s end, when his wife offered him chocolates, ostensibly to sweeten the bitter draught to come. But, it seemed to Dr No, there was something else going on: a last but one chance for a loving wife to give something to the man she loved; and so it was as much about her being able to give, and him being able to receive. But he didn’t. ‘I don’t think it’ll matter’ he said, as he looked away, and the body language said it all. Had he had the grace to accept the – albeit macabre – gift, not for its purpose, but for its symbolism, Dr No would have felt less awkward.
Dr No suspects he was not alone in wondering about the darker motives of the two men filmed in their determination to die. Indeed – to give it its due, there were hints of this question in the programme, notably in the asides and glances of the ID’s assistant, Rob, as there were too on the related matter of the effect of suicide on those who are left behind. For it is they who are the ones who have to live daily with the history of willed death: and, as John Donne said, no man is an island, entire of itself…
We may be able to satisfy ourselves of the right to self-determination in the abstract isolation of the debating chamber. But can we do so so easily in the real world, where the wider ramifications of the ultimate act of passive-aggression cast their ripples in ever deepening circles?