Why people are willing to die for an idea
The Washington Post
Moscow, Oct. 7, 2006. Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent Russian journalist, human rights activist and vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin, was found dead in the elevator of the block of flats where she lived. She had been shot at close range, execution-style. Politkovskaya had received death threats before. Indeed, she had been subjected to assassination attempts and even to a mock execution in Chechenia. That didn’t derail her, though. She knew all alongthat, in Putin’s Russia, she could face death for what she was doing. “People sometimes pay with their lives for saying aloud what they think,” she said in 2005 at a Reporters without Borders conference in Vienna.
Paris, Jan. 7, 2015. Two radical Islamists burst into the Paris headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and opened fire, killing 12 people, including five staff cartoonists. The magazine had been targeted before, its headquarters fire-bombed, the website hacked and the staff threatened. The journalists, however, were not intimidated and decided to carry on as if nothing happened. They must have been aware that their job might get them killed, but they didn’t let that awareness affect their work. In an interview he gave some three years before being gunned down, Stéphane Charbonnier (“Charb”), the magazine’s director, said ominously: “I prefer to die on my feet than to live on my knees.” When in 2012 a man was arrested in La Rochelle for having called for Charb’s beheading, his response was just an ironic, “Let’s not panic!”
Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2015. Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger and secular activist, was hacked to death by two unknown assailants. Soon a local Islamist group praised the killing. Roy was the founder and one of the moderators of Mukto-Mona (“free mind”), an online community of free-thinkers, atheists and humanists, which had lately become influential in Bangladesh and beyond. For all the death threats he had received from Bangladeshi Islamists, as well as the constant harassment from the government, and despite the recent assassination of other writers who held views close to his, Roy did not desist. In an essay about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, titled “The Virus of Faith,” he talks in detail of the threats he was receiving. This was writing done in the shadow of death, but his hand doesn’t seem to be shaking with fear.
These examples, out of many possible, show that people are capable sometimes of the strangest of transactions: they pay with their own lives for something as abstract and seemingly inconsequential as an idea. These people don’t die for their family nor for their friends, for neither country nor religion. Indeed, since many of them are secular or even atheist, they don’t expect any reward in the afterworld. Those who die for their faith make a safe investment: God, they believe, is bound to reward them tenfold. Suicide bombers, at the other end of the spectrum, are dying to kill others for a very pragmatic purpose and as part of a political strategy; as a bonus, they hope, they will also get paradisiacal delights. But those who die for an idea don’t get any palpable reward. They die for nothing. Why do they do it, then?
In my new book “Dying for Ideas. The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers,” I examine the tradition of “philosophical martyrdom” in the West. Martyr-philosophers are thinkers such as Socrates, Hypatia, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More and Jan Patočka, who, when faced with the choice between betraying their philosophy to stay alive and dying to stay faithful to their philosophy, always chose the latter. This choice puts their philosophy to the test of life, as it were. Their death thus become part of their philosophical work. Indeed, in a case like Socrates’, the dramatic ending is almost their only work. They are eminently free people, these philosophers, yet there is at work in their biography a superior necessity that leads them to make certain moral choices, live a certain kind of life and die a particular type of death. Out of a need to live up to their own philosophy, they turn their lives into a testing ground. And eventually this consistency — between work and life, word and deed, theory and practice — is what brings a distinct beauty to these philosophers’ life stories, albeit a frightening beauty.
Similarly, people like Anna Politkovskaya, Stéphane Charbonnier and Avijit Roy who choose to die rather than kneel down before brute force may do it because of an acute need for self-consistency. If we look more closely at their biographies, we find that what they have in common is a concern not to “betray” themselves. Submission would deprive them not only of self-respect, but more importantly of a clear sense of who they are; it would blur some important lines that define them in their own eyes. Should they not do what they are doing, they would not be truly themselves.
Ethically as well as existentially, these people must find ambiguity unbearable; there cannot be anything worse than a muddy situation. “If you were born a human being, you cannot behave like a mushroom,” wrote Politkovskaya in a short text called “Am I afraid?” So to stay safely away from moral or existential confusion, they tend to take the riskiest paths and never negotiate their positions.
They are driven by the same holy stubbornness that was Luther’s signature: “Here I stand and I cannot do otherwise.” These people are literally dying for clarity; they are “purists” not only in their ethics and politics, but in everything. And the most exacting they are with their own lives. The demands they put on themselves are almost inhuman: alarmed that they may inadvertently step into some pitfall, they decide to follow only the highest standards; to make sure that there is nothing cowardly about their actions, they content themselves with nothing but ultimate heroism. There is something almost religious in their concern for purity.
Václav Havel, who came close to dying for an idea more than once, explains the process insightfully. “My alleged courage and stamina,” he writes in “Disturbing the Peace,” “spring from fear: fear of my own conscience, which delights in tormenting me for real and imaginary failures.” There is nothing to envy about someone like him. All his “heroic time in prison was in fact one long chain of worries, fears, and terrors.” The admiration that others have for him he finds misplaced:
I probably bore prison worse than most of those who admired me would. Whenever I heard the familiar shout in the hallways, “Havel!,” I would panic. Once, after hearing my name yelled out like that, I jumped out of bed without thinking and cracked my skull on the window.
Yet regardless of what they go through and how they see themselves, those who die such a death end up making a deep imprint on those they leave behind. These people overcome the precariousness of the flesh and the limitations of the human condition. With grace, they trample on the survival and preservation instincts that dictate the behavior and actions of the rest of us. They spend magnanimously what we seek to preserve miserly. And witnessing that shatters us. Deeply entangled in the business of living, we are overwhelmed by their gesture; their generosity puts all our petty calculations to shame.
And it’s precisely the strange nature of these people’s transaction — the exorbitant price they pay for nothing tangible — that seals their fate in the public consciousness. Overwhelmed and ashamed, we end up processing their death in mythical, rather than strictly rational terms. In death, Politkovskaya, Charbonnier and Roy get much more than what they’ve bargained for: They have lived secular lives and died for secular reasons, yet our guilty conscience projects them into myth, and we turn them into figures of martyrdom. And from beyond the grave, they shape our lives more than they did when they when they were alive. In the end, the nothing for which they died turns out to be quite a lot.