October 21, 2005
Nothing to fear but face itself?
Flirting with suicide (at least evoking suicide imagery) captured the imagination of downtown Philadelphia yesterday:
With a federal corruption probe closing in on him, City Councilman Rick Mariano climbed to the base of the William Penn statue atop City Hall yesterday afternoon, and came down after emergency vehicles responded to a possible suicide attempt.Whether he was "on the verge of taking his own life" will of course be debated. And it will probably never be known. Unless a suicide occurs, such things rarely are. What is known, however, is thet Mariano is under indictment by the Feds, who aren't being nice about it. He likens them to a 1,000-pound gorilla:
Mariano has been the target of a federal grand jury investigation into whether businesses in his district paid his credit-card bills in exchange for favors. Pressure had been mounting on the councilman; his face was on the cover of Wednesday's Philadelphia Daily News with the headline "Going Down."I'm sure that's true.
Whether Mariano intended to commit suicide or not, government officials under indictment have been known to commit suicide in highly public ways. While the televised suicide of Pennsylvania State Senator Budd Dwyer happened too long ago for most people to remember (although it remains of interest to journalists debating ethics), just this past July, indicted Miami commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr. walked into the Miami Herald building and shot himself in the lobby -- "one day before a rival publication was set to publish a lengthy report detailing allegations of corruption, drug use and liaisons with male prostitutes."
It's very easy to look at these stories and conclude these men were cowards afraid to face prison time. I don't think it's that simple -- nor do I think they are that irrational. After all, prison does not mean the end of life. It means the loss of freedom, usually for a period of years. While bad things can and do happen in the joint, there are ways of coping with them. Books have been written by people who have survived. And by people like G. Gordon Liddy, who (to use his own words) did more than survive; he prevailed. The things he did to prevail included: wiretapping the warden, burglarizing prison offices, utilizing the bureaucracy to get troublesome prison bureaucrats fired, and filing a lawsuit ultimately resulting in a court order to tear a prison down. (Say what you like about these methods, but they beat suicide!)
I'm not sure fear of prison is all there is to it, though. Otherwise, there would be a much higher rate of suicide by people indicted or convicted. Rather, I think the higher profile cases involve something called "loss of face." This is a common reason for suicide in other countries, but in this country it seems limited largely to politicians. Media people like Martha Stewart and other imprisoned celebrities are less affected by loss of face, and I think that's because they understand to the depths of their souls that life is all an act, and it is always possible for a professional to reinvent himself by acting.
While politicians are actors too, they don't like to admit it, and they certainly don't want the public to suspect it. Instead, they try hard to believe in their own sincerity, and to get others to believe in it. A prison term for public corruption charges is, literally, the ultimate disgrace, and the end of this act.
With the possible exception of career military people (Cf. Admiral Boorda's suicide), politicians are the only group of Americans whose culture is almost entirely shame based and not guilt based. In shame based cultures, suicide is the time honored, traditional way out.
There is no better way of saving face.
UPDATE: Councilman Mariano will remain "hospitalized under psychiatric evaluation at least through the weekend."
UPDATE (10/22/05): Today's Inquirer reports that Mariano "says he lost lawyer, not will to live," and that he climbed to the top of City Hall to collect his thoughts. As might be expected, no one will explain why he lost his lawyer, or even comment:
Neither Mariano nor Keel would specify why attorney James Becker had told the councilman that he could no longer represent him. Becker did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
posted by Eric on 10.21.05 at 08:14 AM
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