I hardly know what to expect. Have you slaughtered a man before?” Bernd-Jürgen Brandes wrote to Armin Meiwes in a private chat on March 6, 2001.
“Unfortunately, only in my dreams,” answered Meiwes, “but in my thoughts I do it every night.”
“So I’m the first? You have eaten human flesh before, or you haven’t?”
“No, you don’t exactly find it in the supermarket, unfortunately.”
Brandes met Meiwes on The Cannibal Cafe—a now-defunct forum for anthropophagic fetishists—where he had responded to Meiwes’s advertisement for a “well-built man, 18–30, who would like to be eaten by me.” The men conversed for a few days and agreed to meet on March 9 at Meiwes’s mansion near Rotenburg, Germany. Meiwes, a gay computer technician, had nurtured fantasies of consuming a blond “younger brother” since he was a kid. For his part, Brandes had long desired to be slaughtered and eaten; a desire which intensified when his girlfriend ended their relationship after learning he was bisexual.
What transpired between the two men became one of the most infamous cases in German criminal history. Upon arriving at Meiwes’s home, Brandes ingested sleeping pills, painkillers, and half a bottle of Schnapps before Meiwes castrated him and flambéed his member. They attempted to eat it together but found it too chewy. Meiwes then ran Brandes a bath and read a Star Trek novel while the man bled out in his tub. Hours later, the exsanguination not yet complete, Meiwes became impatient. He retrieved a knife from his kitchen, kissed Brandes, and stabbed his lover in the throat until he died.
Having fulfilled Brandes’s fantasy, Meiwes then indulged his own. He donned an apron, hung his lover’s body on a hook, and began to carefully remove and package the meat, which he stacked in his freezer beside a takeout pizza. He videotaped the entire event, beginning with Brandes’s arrival and ending with his dismemberment. The footage demonstrates beyond question that Brandes consented enthusiastically.
By the time Meiwes was arrested nine months later, he had consumed some 20 kg of Brandes’s corpse. He explained to detectives that he cooked him with garlic and olive oil and would decorate his table with candles and use his best cutlery. South African red wine made a nice complement to Brandes, who, according to Meiwes, tasted like pork.
Originally convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight and a half years, Meiwes was retried after prosecutors appealed the verdict and—further analysis of the videotape having proved that he killed Brandes for sexual gratification—convicted of murder in May 2006. Unrepentant despite having become a vegetarian in prison, he is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
This, Dear Reader, is an injustice.
A recent ruling of the Bundesverfassungsgericht (BVerfG), Germany’s highest court, has made death on demand a constitutional right. Wesley J. Smith summarizes the decision: “In Germany, autonomous people now have the absolute right to commit suicide and receive assistance in doing so for any reason or no identifiable reason at all.” The ruling guarantees this right “in all stages of a person’s existence.” Even children capable of autonomous decision-making may avail themselves of this liberty.
The ruling is a rather elegant reductio ad absurdum exposing the logical terminus of liberal individualism. No limiting principle may be applied to the exercise of the “autonomous” human will, and John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” is worse than useless when harm is defined subjectively. “The individual’s decision to end their own life,” writes the BVerfG, “based on how they personally define quality of life and a meaningful existence, eludes any evaluation on the basis of general values, religious dogmas, societal norms for dealing with life and death, or considerations of objective rationality.” The individual’s subjective understanding of harm overrules considerations of objective rationality.
The German court’s language echoes that of U.S. Justice Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Germany’s BVerfG is applying the same concept of liberty; it’s just doing so more consistently and with considerably more intellectual integrity. “Where the protection of life runs counter to the protection of autonomy,” declares the BVerfG, “it contradicts the central understanding of a community which places human dignity at the core of its order of values and thus commits itself to respecting and protecting the freedom of human personality as the highest value of its Constitution.”
But there are consequences to intellectual consistency. After a waffling consideration of what regulations might be deemed reasonable, the court returns to its theme: “Sufficient space must remain in practice for the individual to exercise the right to depart this life, and, based on their free will and with the support of third parties, to carry out this decision on their own terms.” The court envisions these “terms” as being rather banal—potassium titrated unto quietus. But as far as the court’s delineated principles are concerned, any regulation whatsoever of an individual’s terms must be considered a violation of the right to self-determination.
According to the logic of the court, the imprisonment of Armin Meiwes for the consensual killing of Bernd-Jürgen Brandes is a grave injustice. Brandes was simply departing this life on his own terms, and exercising his right to Meiwes’s “support” in doing so—a decision that cannot be evaluated on the basis of “objective rationality.” It is only a matter of time until Meiwes files an appeal using the court’s new decision. Unless the BVerfG is willing to discredit itself through inconsistency, the German people will soon discover that the “sweet mystery of life” tastes a lot like pork.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.