Arik Sharon Back in the Sycamore Ranch
On the 4th of January 2006, the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (better known to his countrymen as ‘Arik’) suffered a massive stroke at his vast Sycamore Ranch. He was placed under induced coma from which he never recovered consciousness. The hero of the Yom Kippur war, the villain of the massacres in Qibya and Sabra and Shatila, has since been occupying a bed in the Tel Hashomer hospital, in a permanent vegetative state. A doctor has said that his brain is ‘the size of a grapefruit’—only the brain stem remains, maintaining vegetative functions. Beyond that, ‘there is nothing, just fluid’. Earlier this month, Sharon was driven back to the Sycamore ranch, for the first time since the stroke. He was later taken back to the hospital, but the idea seems to be that in time he will be moved there permanently. It is said that keeping Sharon alive in this way costs the Israeli taxpayer something around $400,000 a year.
It would take a miracle for Sharon to recover – which is just to say that he will never regain consciousness. One day, perhaps soon, perhaps in many years, his heart will finally stop beating, and he will be interned in a grave in some state ceremony. In one sense, this will be the second time that Sharon has died. But in another sense, Sharon will never really die.
Sharon is now one of the living dead. He is of course still a living human being. His heart beats, his lungs pump air. Occasionally, we are told, he opens his eyes, and stared blankly ahead. In this sense, he is still alive. But Sharon the person with the aims, convictions, memories, and traits that many despise, and some admire, no longer exists, not even in potential, in that skull full of fluid. When his heart finally stops, long prepared obituaries and statements will appear in the media. Biographies will be published. But nothing needs to be added to these. Sharon’s gravestone could justifiably read 1928-2006. His life, in any significant sense, has already ended. If a Hamas militant has somehow found himself in Tel Hashomer, it would make little sense for him to switch off Sharon’s life support. If he did, it would not count as an assassination, or amount to any kind of revenge. If anything, the militant is more likely to feel that he would only be doing Sharon a favour.
These points would be familiar to most of you. Many would agree that Sharon’s life has already ended in any meaningful sense. It is in part a terminological issue whether to reserve the word ‘death’ to the irreversible cessation of consciousness, as proponents of the ‘higher brain’ definition of death suggest, or reserve it (perhaps more naturally) to the end of his biological life, but add that in that case biological life doesn’t, in itself, really matter. What matters is whether someone is capable of being conscious or not.
In this way, when Sharon’s heart stops, we could say he has died a second death. But in what sense would Sharon never really die? Death is not only an event in the world, the end point of the existence of some entity. It is also, in yet another sense, a social and affective status—the source of certain emotions and attitudes, the reason for certain rituals. Social traditions, and the emotions associated with them, cannot be transferred at will from one object to the other. We know that Sharon is already gone, in the only sense that really matters, but this is merely an intellectual conclusion. After all, he is still there, lying in bed in the Sycamore ranch or the hospital. We are told that he has lost much weight, and we can be curious about how he looks like now in a way we would never be about a decomposing cadaver.
If Sharon’s life had truly ended in January 2006—both as a biological and psychological being—this would have been an occasion for mourning to his family and admirers, for cheers and jeers for his very many enemies. Now when Sharon’s heart finally stops beating, he will no doubt still receive a state funeral, and his supporters and enemies will pronounce on his legacy. His sons will shed a tear. But the proceedings will be mute. People will be merely going through the motions. It will be like mourning (or jeering) a ghost, someone who is already long gone. In this sense, Sharon will never really die.