Why “don’t speak ill of the dead” needs to die

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On October 18, 2021, General Colin Powell died, following the death of fellow Bush Administration official Donald Rumsfeld earlier this year on June 29. On February 25, 2020, ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak died at the age of 91. And on April 8, 2013, and June 5, 2004, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former President Ronald Reagan both died. Each one of these deaths has sparked debates about how to react when someone with a controversial past dies.  

Of course, Powell, Rumsfeld, Mubarak, Thatcher and Reagan were people and they had families. At the same time, Powell and Rumsfeld played a critical role in the Iraq War. Many saw Mubarak ruling Egypt with an iron fist. Thatcher and Reagan arguably crushed organized labor in their countries while supporting fascistic regimes in other countries, while under Reagan’s watch, thousands of gay men died of AIDS in the ‘80s. Their deaths were met with a mix of celebration, mourning, and criticism.  

One thing I hear often when a powerful person dies and people criticize them is a version of “don’t speak ill of the dead.” What good does that do though? Does dying absolve someone of the terrible things they’ve done? At some point, everyone dies. Tyrants such as King Leopold II of Belgium, who brutally colonized the Congo region of Africa, and Hitler who sent millions to their deaths have died as well, and I don’t think anyone would argue that we can’t speak ill of them just because they happened to die.  

I am not asking people to gloat or cheer because Colin Powell died. However, instead of heaping praise on him, we should be honest about who he was and what he did. Even if it can be chalked up to ignorance, he downplayed the Mỹ Lai massacre and lied in front of the UN to make the case for the Iraq War, a war that went on to claim 250,000-1,000,000 civilian lives. He did have a role in funding the Contras, as well as the US invasion of Panama. At the same time, he was an inspiration for Black people in the military, and he did endorse Obama and speak out against Trump. He also apologized for and denounced his speech at the UN. It’s up to you to decide whether or not that makes up for what he did, but being honest about his legacy is important.  

When Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger-the man who orchestrated the carpet bombing of Cambodia, helped right wing military dictatorships come to power in Chile and Argentina, and gave Indonesia’s military dictator the green light to invade and occupy East Timor with U.S. support-dies, will we forget what he did when he was alive and heap praise on him? Or what about Donald Trump? Will his death cause liberals and leftists to forget his crimes? I hope not.  

Dead or not, the actions of powerful people have real life impacts on thousands of people, Colin Powell was 84, Rumsfeld 88, Mubarak 91, Thatcher 87, and Reagan 93, on the other hand, many of the people who died because of them didn’t even make it to 18. Instead of demanding we never speak ill of the dead, how about we demand powerful people stop doing things that make us speak ill of them? In the meantime, we should be able to honestly address peoples’ actions, even after they die.