11 November 2009

Protecting Dr. Death

This photo was taken yesterday at the SFBC during an event put on by a renter, a group based in Australia, Exit International. The rental was scheduled while I was on sabbatical this year.

A few days before the rental date, there was an article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Australia's Dr. Death comes to San Francisco", stating that "On Sunday, Nitschke will bring his suicide seminar to the Buddhist Center in San Francisco, where he will teach attendees how to kill themselves."

Of course, first of all this sounds like the Center is sponsoring his visit. Second, the rental was scheduled for Tuesday, not Sunday. Thirdly, is the point of the meeting really just to teach people to kill themselves? We were inundated with calls that we had neither the information nor the resources to deal with.

Often, renters of the Center never even see me. This time, I thought I should be there to keep an eye on things, and I was also curious. So Tuesday morning two rather nervous Australians showed up, Philip and Fiona. One got the impression that this was their first visit to America and that they half expected everyone to to have a gun.

Things started out calmly enough (the main snag was having to ask a lot of old people, some with crutches, to take off their shoes!) A guy from Associated Press arrived with a big camera and tripod. There were two or three people outside who were handing out literature opposed to what Dr. Nitschke does - they didn't seem too obnoxious.

After the meeting started, Fiona was at the front door telling two people she didn't want them to come in. She was distraught. Elaine and I went over to try to help. A woman in a wheelchair was trying to push her way through the door. Fiona was trying to shut it. The woman was saying, I'm not doing anything, I am not a security risk, you have to let me in, why won't you let me in? Etc. I made a few fairly inarticulate statements - while being filmed by her friend - which at any rate caused her to withdraw, and we were able to shut the door.

But more people were arriving and couldn't get in because she was blocking the door with her wheelchair. We started letting people in a side door, which happened to have a stair so the woman couldn't block it. She started talking about us not letting her in because she is handicapped. It was all very upsetting so I put on my shoes and went out there to talk to her and her friend. One big issue for her was being called a security risk. I told her that they were Australian and for some reason think everyone in this country has a gun, to which her friend replied, Well this is the Mission so they probably do.

Her friend's angle was that I had made a big legal mistake not letting them in, that I was legally obliged to do so. I am pretty certain this isn't true. He had an intimidating way of speaking that sounded legally authoritative. Anyway at the end they thanked me for talking to them, and were late for something else anyway. Then the API guy walked out and assured them their point of view would be represented and seemed interested in their video of the head of Zen Center (sic) (AKA me) refusing them entry. (It's the only time in my life I haven't corrected someone who referred to us as Zen Center!) The man told the API reporter he'd send the video...if only he could figure out how to get it off his phone...(Looking good, from my point of view!) Then they left. I wasn't sure how to say goodbye. Have a good day? Nice meeting you? Thanks? I said nothing. (I don't know why I didn't just say goodbye.)

When not functioning as the de facto bouncer at the meeting, I listened to some of Dr. Nitschke's presentation. He has rather a more 'liberal' policy of suicide assistance than I expected. For example, an 80 year old woman who was not sick or depressed. An old couple who also are not ill commit double suicide. And the second half of the meeting actually was a workshop restricted to people over 50, in which he did in fact give instructions for committing suicide.

At least some - okay, all - of what Dr. Nitschke does, from a traditional Buddhist point of view, is unethical, although I would guess that his motivation is to relieve suffering. Other than being disturbed by his presentation, I'm not sure how I feel about what he does. I do think it's absurd that committing or attempting suicide is illegal. I was also reflecting that modern medicine has been so fantastically successful that we now live longer than we want to. So modern medicine steps in again and allows people to decide when they're going to die, without pain.

The Buddha - and he was of course not alone in this - taught that the resolve not to take life or cause harm is of primary importance. In what way is this still relevant considering the conditions of modern life? How do we apply it? Our societies have become so incredibly organized about, and skilled at, both preserving life, and crushing it. Abortion? Vegetarianism? Euthanasia? Death penalty? I just know that I don't want to fight about it, and I don't think that the State has proved itself to be compassionate and sane enough to decide for someone whether they will live or die.

At any rate, during the event at the Center, I felt that I had to somehow make sure the two nervous Australians could carry on with their event. Thinking about it now I am kind of surprised at how protective of them I felt, and also of the woman in the wheelchair outside.

At the same time, it was incredibly stressful, and I hope I never see any of them again!


Here is the video on youtube done by Associated Press. (Post-postscript: This video was on youtube for about one day - it's gone now "Removed by user.")

I found out that the woman who was outside is called Marilyn Golden, and she is a well known local activist from various organizations, including one called Not Dead Yet. The man with the legal jargon was Walter Park. Here is Marilyn's blog post about the event.

I am happy with both the video and Marilyn's blog post in terms of the way the Center was represented.

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