Dan Markel's Meaningful Life Ends in Senseless Death

Law Professor Was Mensch in Every Sense of Word

florida state university

By Jay Michaelson

Published July 21, 2014.

There was a time, not too long ago, when what we wanted were explanations. Religion, philosophy, art – these were meant to tell us how things fit together, how they made sense.

Even today, many of us — religious, secular, spiritual-but-not-religious — hold to this view. “It was meant to be.” “God works in mysterious ways.” “This happened for a reason.”

I don’t. Not only do I consider these attempts at “explanation” to be childish, deluded, and utterly mismatched to the facts — I find them a little obscene. They lessen the tragedy too much, with their gloss of verification bias. I prefer the inexplicable.

I’ve gone 100 words without telling you what this piece is about. It could be about Gaza, or Ukraine, or the Holocaust. It’s actually just about another random, senseless act of violence, the kind that happens every day. It just so happened that this one was directed at a friend.

Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Police called the killing a “murder” and said it was not a random act. Investigators did not name a suspect or offer a possible motive.

I met Dan through the Dorot Fellowship. He was a couple of years behind me, but we had a lot in common: possible-law-professors (he became one, I didn’t); active in the progressive Jewish world; intellectual, analytical, geeky. We became personal friends and professional colleagues. I helped him with his “job talk.” He helped me navigate my career. He was a great guy.

Which, frustratingly, is what people usually say in eulogies and obituaries.

How can I convince you that I’m telling the truth? Dan really was a mensch. And a damn fine legal scholar, with 30-odd legal academic articles to his name (authored or co-authored).

On Facebook and in life, he doted on his two sons. Though his marriage ended in divorce, I never heard him say a harsh word about his ex-wife. He was focused on his kids, worried about them, determined to be there for them, despite the challenges of doing so post-divorce. Apparently they were at daycare when he was shot.

So, no – no explanations, please. I’m not interested in hearing if this happened for a reason. Because it didn’t, not in the cosmological sense anyway.

Ironically, if that’s the word, Dan’s specialty was criminal law, and the various theories for why and how the law punishes criminal offenders. Now he appears to be a victim of violent crime himself.

Dan was also the primary instigator behind the Prawfsblawg group blog, one of the best legal-academic blogs on the Internet. Under his leadership, Prawfsblawg was intellectual, funny, topical, irreverent, and diverse in membership. (I myself was a guest blogger for a few months.) Its current first page covers topics from marriage equality to Weird Al, obscure doctrines of criminal law to the incestuous world of legal blogs. That’s a good sample. I feel confident it will continue.

Dan’s Jewish commitment was a big part of his life as well – at shul in Tallahassee, on trips to Israel, raising his kids.

His Facebook page is now full of tributes. So many people knew and were touched by him. He was a ‘connector.’ And just a fun guy. Not a saint, thank God.

Coming as it did amid all the violence in Israel and Gaza, this sudden, senseless death just seems so random. And personally as well: for the last year, there’s been serious illness in my family, and it’s been as emotionally draining as you might expect it to be.

I feel spiritually thin, almost like vapor. But then, out of nowhere, this.

I don’t believe in an afterlife. I’ll say more about that in a future column. It seems to me that the moment of death is the last moment we experience, and then there are no more moments. We don’t rest in peace; we don’t rest at all.

I hate to think of Dan’s last moment, knowing that his children loved him and needed him so much. Maybe there was none. Maybe it was this sudden for him too.

But more than any of that, I grieve for his two young sons, whom I never met in person and probably never will.

My father died when I was 26, and that was after a long illness. I have no idea what this is like for them. I am sure they will be cared for. I am sure the care will help. But nothing will, or should, make this OK.



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