Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some things aren't worth dying for

We humans have a complex relationship with death.

We're all going to die eventually, but most of us don't want to think about it. Anthropologists will tell you it's a major reason that religion is so prevalent in human societies. It's the unspoken undercurrent of fear that drives both proponents and opponents of health care reform in America. It's an uncomfortable reality that we all deal with -- as we must -- in our own way.

Few things bring the value of life more into focus than a funeral. I realized that yet again recently while attending a funeral for a loved one who died in the prime of life. All around, you saw tears of inconsolable grief. You heard stories of the happy times in a life cut short far too soon. You felt the sense of profound sadness over the loss of what more might have been, if only death had waited, if only it stayed at bay for a few decades or even a few years longer.

Some people think death is permanent. Others think it's a pathway to a new life in another place. But regardless of religious beliefs, something everyone can agree on is that death means a loss for those who remain. It means the lasting pain of years or decades of separation from someone important to you. It means children who lose a parent, parents who lose a child, friends and siblings who lose a confidant, spouses who lose their everything.

As survivors, we find ways to ease our pain. We tell ourselves our loved ones died doing what they loved, that their suffering is over now, that they laid down their lives in defense of others or of their country. We tell ourselves what we need to hear so we can sleep at night, so we can dull the gnawing pain, so we can be confident we'll see our loved ones again. We tell ourselves everything -- even something as shocking as death -- happens for a reason.

Humans have a tendency to work ourselves into froths over religious or political disagreements, and things get extra frothy when the matter involves both at once. Such is the case with the electronic bingo battle that is consuming this year's legislative session in Alabama. Crowds march on Montgomery demanding a vote on bingo and a restoration of their jobs. Law enforcement orders raids on bingo halls. Tensions escalate.

And then people who should know better say things they shouldn't. State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said that if Gov. Bob Riley's task force tried to raid Greenetrack without a warrant, "you will see a bloody day in Greene County." His Democratic House colleague, Johnny Ford of Tuskegee, ratcheted things up even further, telling a Montgomery television station, "If somebody has to die, so be it. I'll die for my constitutional rights. You gotta die for something."

I have no idea if the electronic machines at dog tracks and bingo halls in Alabama are legal or not. As someone with little interest in gambling, I personally don't care if they stay or go. I think Riley's raids -- sending more than 100 police at once to establishments accused of nonviolent crimes -- have been wasteful and heavy-handed. And I sympathize with the people who feel that electronic bingo halls are their only option for jobs after decades of inadequate state action on economic development for their areas.

But Alabama has legislators and judges for a reason. It's the Legislature's job to determine what's legal and what isn't, and it's the Supreme Court's job to determine how general provisions apply to the specific facts at hand. It's not as exciting as a tense standoff, but it's the way we do things in a civilized society. It's how we maintain order even in troubled times. It's how we guard against unnecessary violence and death.

Everyone on both sides of the bingo debate should take a deep breath, then another, and then another. Make your best legal and policy arguments. Speak out, march, and rally in favor of your position -- peacefully. Let the system do what it's supposed to do.

And pray to God that no one has to attend a funeral -- that no one has to lose a loved one -- because of a damn bingo machine.