11:42, August 07 55 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-07 11:42:03
Remember Ryan Lock, but don’t think of suicide as heroic or cowardly

Ryan Lock was just 20 and working as a chef in the Hampshire town of Havant when he decided to go off and fight in Syria. He liked playing military video games, and was described by his mother as “quite political”. But his parents didn’t guess what he was up to when he told them that he was going backpacking to Turkey. From there he flew to northern Iraq, where he joined up to fight Islamic State, maintaining intermittent contact with his family, who occasionally glimpsed him posing on Facebook with an AK-47. Details of where he died were not given at the inquest, though it is understood that he took his own life on the outskirts of the Isis stronghold of Raqqa, some time last December. He died “a martyr”, his commanding officer said.

But although no one is disputing that Lock killed himself, the coroner, David Horsley, did not record a verdict of suicide. “This is the story of a young man who gave up a stable and comfortable life in order to go and fight for what he believes in and give his life for it.” He went on: “I don’t believe this can be viewed as suicide. He was a very brave man and his family have lost a very heroic young man.”

By that reasoning, Lock was too brave to be a suicide – despite the fact that the coroner openly acknowledges that he shot himself. This bothers me. My fear is that, with this reported approach, the Hampshire coroner risks adding to the impression that those who kill themselves are cowards. The logic one might easily absorb from his verdict is that because Ryan wasn’t a coward, his death could not have been a suicide.

There is something insulting about this sort of connection. Something archaic too. For the branding of suicides as cowards harks back to a morally judgmental, and mostly abandoned, view – that those who kill themselves are quitters who take “the easy way out”. This is the ultimate in victim blaming. Before the 1961 Suicide Act, taking your own life was illegal, and widely viewed as shameful. From the 16th century suicides were denied a proper Christian burial. Indeed, only last month did the Church of England finally remove from its canons the general rule banning the use of the standard burial service for those who take their own lives (though this rule had been ignored for decades).

In fact, our attitudes to suicide have been liberalising for centuries. It was the priest and poet John Donne who first encouraged sensitive pastoral understanding for those who take their own lives. And that was before we started understanding more about the effects of depression. Those of us who have sometimes felt on the edge of suicide generally experience a situation that is so bleak and all-consuming that there seems no way through. Having been in that pit myself, I cannot condemn as cowardly those who succumb to the darkness. Shockingly, in the UK, if you are male and aged between 20 and 50, you are now more likely to kill yourself than die in any other way. That fact is worth repeating: suicide is now responsible for the death of more young men than cancer, heart attacks, anything. And more US soldiers kill themselves when they return home than die in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Lock’s case was different, of course. He didn’t kill himself to escape mental torture, but to escape capture by the enemy. He did what the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, advised troops last month. “Do not surrender alive,” he said to soldiers fighting Islamist militants. “I will give you a pistol with three magazines, but remember one is for you and two for the enemies.” There is no one-size-fits-all morality of suicide. Some kill themselves in an act of killing others; some in order not to be taken alive; some out of depression or sheer hopelessness.

So why did the coroner not reach a finding of suicide in the case of Lock? Only he will know that for sure, as there are many possibilities. But the one that would bother me most is a train of thought that is, with good intentions, too protective. This would see his story as running the risk of mirroring a little too uncomfortably the story of those we recognise as terrorists: the video-game-playing loner who runs off to Syria and ends up a martyr regrettably tracks the profile of those who run off to Syria to fight for the other side.

Moreover, to describe his death as suicide – notwithstanding the fact that the only life he took was his own – would have been to plot another similarity with an Islamist terrorist out of central casting. And that would suggest some moral equivalence between Lock and his enemies. Of course, I can understand why a coroner wouldn’t want to reason thus. But by emphasising the story of bravery and sacrifice, the coroner – navigating the complexity of a very public, politically loaded tragedy – risked straying into dangerous territory.

For the narrative of bravery and heroism leading to glorious death is one that supporters of suicide bombers and terrorists apply all the time. Nothing risked making the connection between Lock and the people he was fighting more surely than the coroner’s comments about the heroism and bravery of his death. Suicide is many things, and the reasons for it have no common denominator. But it is not shameful. And neither is it heroic.

In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123; in the US the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255; in Australia the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14

Dr Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral. He writes the Loose canon column for the Guardian