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The Left's Terri Schiavo

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I didn’t want to write about Cindy Sheehan for the same reason I didn’t want to write about Terri Schiavo. Each woman’s story is tragic. Each woman’s story is painful to think about, let alone write and opine about. Both women are (or in Terri’s case, were) emotional lightning rods for polarizing politics. Each became poster children for one partisan viewpoint or another. Each of these most public of controversies ripped families apart; Michael Schiavo’s vicious dispute with his in-laws, followed by Cindy Sheehan’s split from her husband.

There is something ugly and degrading about every news junky in the country turning into a rubbernecking voyeur who gawks at and mouths off about a family’s personal trauma. But once these tragedies turned into politicized media circuses there was no getting around it.

Some people think Cindy Sheehan should not be publicly criticized. I sympathize with this, even though I don’t quite agree with it. Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber put it this way:

I guess there are two views on this kind of thing. There’s the view that citizens, whatever their background, are fair game for personal attack as soon as they open their mouths and should be treated in the same hardball manner as any machine politician or professional pundit. And there’s the view that grieving mothers should be shown consideration, kindness and respect.

Grieving mothers should be shown consideration, kindness, and respect. It bothers me that Sheehan isn’t getting this consideration. But it’s her own fault she’s not getting it. Really, it is. She made herself into a controversial public figure by choice. Criticism is part of the package. If she expected not to be criticized for her polarizing political theatrics she is painfully naïve.

If she had remained a private citizen, or was thrust into a media circus against her will, then she should have remained off limits from criticism no matter how batty her political opinions might be. Most people, I think, can agree with that much at least. But she voluntarily ended that unofficial social agreement.

I still feel bad for her, though, even though I think she’s wrong about the war. (She opposes military intervention in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq.) I didn’t agree with Terri Schiavo’s parents and their political hangers on either. But I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for both the Sheehan and the Schiavo families. No pain in this world is worse than burying your own child.

I’m embarrassed for them, too, when moral and political cretins like Michael Moore and Randall Terry step in as cheerleaders and spokesmen. No one forced them to use the likes of Terry and Moore, or — and perhaps it is better to put it this way — to be used by them. It’s still gruesome to see, like watching someone slam their own hand in a car door at a funeral.

The story is not about Cindy Sheehan’s son. Nor is it about the war. It’s all about her now. The whole country is putting this woman on trial. The left defends. The right prosecutes. Her moderate supporters are put in the awkward position of defending a political figure whose views crazily diverge from their own. Her hawkish antagonists are put in the awkward position of arguing with a woman whose son was killed in a war they support. Everyone who touches this sordid affair is cheapened by it one way or another.

Two people can pull the plug on this at any time. The first is Cindy Sheehan, yet she has invested too much to back down. The second is George W. Bush.

Yes, I know, he’s busy even while he’s “on vacation.� Yes, I know, he already met with her once. No, he is not obligated to talk to every citizen who demands a meeting with him. She’s entitled to her opinion and she’s entitled to protest, but she is not entitled to see the president whenever she wants. So what? She’s just down the road at the end of his driveway, and he can spare fifteen minutes.

Perhaps he’s afraid he’ll lose face if he meets her again. And perhaps he will. The cameras will roll, after all. But he also has an opportunity to be the big Mr. Reasonable while being hounded and possibly screamed at.

In the meantime, every day he ignores her makes him, her, and everyone else look more and more like an ass. Just go down for a couple of minutes, George. Do it for yourself, for Cindy, for all of us. It’s the off season in politics, but we have to do better than this.