The equivocal and despairing note discovered last week in Vincent W. Foster Jr.'s briefcase was as jarring as the tragedy of his suicide on July 20. The letter only cuts deeper into an affair roiled with questions.
The young public responded to the suicide with surprise and disbelief. The death of the youthful Deputy White House Counsel touched us, but alienated our sensibilities. No one could guess what motivated Foster to commit an act found so despicable.
Young America cried foul that one of the new administration's own breed, a private man from small town America, could so abruptly break off his obligations to a younger generation disenchanted with Washington and in desperate need of his kind. Without any real explanation, no one could understand this violation of trust.
Last week in a carefully timed release. Washington put forth the official explanation in publishing Foster's letter. The note instability, as officials put it, and how little was actually known of his character.
Mr. Foster had been afflicted by "a loss of perspective," according to the administration. His note contained caustic but unfounded allegations against the FBI, the Wall Street Journal and especially, the Washington press corps. Thus, the youth of America are supposed to be satisfied to let pass the fall of this successful but flawed individual. And the young are certainly not to dwell on the circumstances of this unusual event.
Umberto Eco derides his country for staging formal religious services for two public figures who recently took their lives. Deeply involved in the scandals coming to light, Gardini and Cagliari had little chance of salvaging any part of their professional lives.
In an Italy whose people have named their plagued government Tangentopoli, or "Pay-Off City," many are implicated in the corporation, and everyone is suspect. Not unlike the Sicilian tradition of the family so potent in the mafiosi, an implicit code of honor in Italy puts those who have broken the trust of the people permanently out of trust. The recent deaths may only express a more distasteful realization of this tradition.
Yet these suicides have provoked a compassionate response from the Italian public. Perhaps as a self-recognition of their failing, perhaps in respect to the many who had placed their confidence in these leaders, it was felt that some greater office was served in these deaths.
In a recent essay in L'espresso, an Italian news magazine, Eco finds this unusual emotion dating to a Pagan conception of honor, in the city-states of Greece, taking one's life was a heroic response to a fall from grace. Suicide represented a recognition of grave wrongdoing, and more significantly, a moral catharsis, the individual would regain his honor in society by taking his life, and would preserve respect in the memory of his name.
The irony of the Gardini and Cagliari funerals is not in the pagan association with honor, but in the religious character of the services. The Christianized West has long condemned suicide.. In antithesis to the pagan heroic ideal, the act is associated with a great evil, something more awful even the taking another's life; it is the single irrevocable sin. Yet Gardini becomes a victim, and Cagliari as well, both assassinated by politics.
To Eco, the ambiguity of the response in Italy raises a more potent question: has society ever come to terms with the act of suicide and its different motivation? Despite education, an emotional public response, as to an assassination, is inevitable.
It is not possible to judge the act itself and remain immune from the circumstances. In the political world, a suicide often involves issues reaching beyond the individual in question. While the deaths of Cagliari and Gardini in themselves cannot be reconciled, it is necessary to find them in some way fitting final words on the extent to which the establishment has rotted in Italy.
Eco finds in these suicides, as he terms it, a "colder" reality. Periodically, in a diseased institution, whether it is a government, Wall Street or a single collapsed corporation, the dirt on the table incites a wave of suicides.
It is possible to condemn or give compassion to these deaths (although the corruption itself must be abhorred). These suicides can only stand as the blood on the wall--the symbol of the intrigue which had taken root.
In this sense the self-inflicted death performs a societal function. When corruption reaches self-destruction, the public must recognize a greater malady, a national sickness, and renew its ethics.