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.

But at a news conference last night, authorities said that Mariano had never been in danger because the observation deck at the base - about 500 feet above the ground - is encased in protective Plexiglas.

Both Mayor Street and Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said they did not believe that Mariano, who expects to be indicted next week, had been suicidal.

Street was among those who first climbed the steep, winding steps up to the observation deck upon learning that Mariano was there. Doors to the tower and its elevator had been locked, though it was unclear whether Mariano had locked them, said a City Hall staffer who was there.

Before last night's news conference, police said they responded in force because they believed Mariano could be suicidal. Three fire engines - including a ladder truck - a Fire Department medic unit and more than a dozen police cars were dispatched to City Hall. Police were unsure whether Mariano, who has had a permit to carry a gun, was armed.

"He just really wanted an opportunity to reflect on all of it," said Street, who talked to Mariano before he came off the deck shortly after 6 p.m. "He just went to a place where he thought he would be able to be peaceful... . It never occurred to me that he was on the verge of taking his own life."

Mariano was taken to Pennsylvania Hospital, with his wife, Susan, by his side.

Johnson acknowledged that Mariano had voluntarily admitted himself for observation.

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."

"He believed that this could be his last Council session... and he was up there reflecting about it," said union leader John Dougherty, Mariano's friend and political patron, who arrived at the deck as the mayor was speaking to Mariano.

"I mean, he was looking over the city," said Dougherty, who recently testified before the grand jury investigating Mariano. "He's a human being and feels the pressure like everybody else. No one knows what it's like to be in his body right now, so we just keep him in our prayers."


Earlier in the day - after months of terse answers and no-comments - Mariano spoke at length on the investigation.

"I'm not confident of anything," he said when asked about the federal probe. "This is like fighting a 1,000-pound gorilla, and they run the show."

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.

But Mariano, who lashed out at the federal government while talking to reporters hours before ascending the tower, continued to cast himself as the victim of a heavy-handed prosecutorial attack.

"I'm being persecuted," Mariano said of learning that Becker would withdraw.

A prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenya Mann, declined to comment.

Mariano said he fired two top aides, John Lisko and Walt De Treux, yesterday. De Treux said he had resigned. Lisko would not comment.

posted by Eric on 10.21.05 at 08:14 AM


American politicians and shame? Now there's a stretch.

Don McArthur   ·  October 21, 2005 10:27 AM

The inescapable public shame which attaches to a convicted politician is not quite the same thing as what Americans commonly think of when they use the word. Politicians often seem to lack the same capacity for guilt, but that's not quite the same thing.

More on shame versus guilt here:

Eric Scheie   ·  October 21, 2005 11:53 AM

Very interesting. Guilt vs. shame. Yes, I can see that, whereas guilt can be expiated, shame tends to leave a permanent stain. In ancient China and Japan, one could bring shame upon his entire family.

As I understand it, shame pertains to what one is seen doing by others. You get caught stealing, you feel shame. Men accused of crime used to hide their faces with their hats from newpaper photographers. Guilt pertains to what you do, period, according to your standard of right and wrong. You steal, no one sees you, but you feel guilt anyway. Criminals have no conscience about robbing and murdering, yet they are extremely sensitive about being "dissed" in front of their fellow criminals -- a shame culture.

In regard to sexual morality, modesty in dress is an issue of shame, how you are seen by others. Most people would be ashamed to be seen walking naked down the street. Chastity, on the other hand, is an issue of guilt, e.g., adultery, even if you don't get caught at it. E.g., the Catholic church has long condemned masturbation as a mortal sin. An entirely private act, yet there was a time when lines to the confessional snaked around the block. Pray your Rosary. Worship the Virgin.

Guilt pertains to a priestly ethic, while shame pertains to a warrior ethic. Plato wrote of the virtues of men's men in the army of Sparta: a man would not want to disgrace himself, shame himself, in the eyes of his male lover by showing himself to be a coward.

Homosexuality is seen as a sin by most of the Christian churches. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 condemn male homosexuality as an "abomination", even worthy of death. Yet the origins of that taboo are rooted in shame rather than guilt. In the ancient world (as in our prisons today), the distinction was between the active man on top vs. the passive man on the bottom, who was thought to have lost his manhood thereby, an issue of shame in the warrior sense rather than of sin in the religious sense. Anal rape was a common method of humiliating an enemy, and certain of today's obscene words and gestures reflect that. Indeed, in this situation, it is more blessed to give than to receive. That joke about the lettuce is getting a little old.

Most interesting. I shall have to think about it some more. Ties in with the Castle vs. the Cathedral.

Excellent comment, Steven. Confusion is also caused by expressions such as "you should be ashamed of yourself!" (An attempt to transform guilt into shame.)

Eric Scheie   ·  October 21, 2005 3:26 PM

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