Sunday, March 27, 2005

On Easter morning

It is 7 am on Easter Morning. I have just received my coffee at Starbucks, when Hank, a man whom I often see here, mentions how appreciative he is that places are open on Easter. Everything used to be closed on the holidays. Except the movie theatres, I commented. That’s right, Hank said. Then after reflecting a moment he added, I’ve heard the Jews go to the movies on Christmas. Then go out for Chinese food. He smiled. Don’t know if it’s true. I assured him it was.

A good friend, a man rarely moved in my experience to political passions, wrote to me from his BlackBerry:

Where was the Democratic leadership when the Terry Schiavo issue was hitting the fan? Where were the politically conservative Republicans during this egregious abuse of political strong-arming by the religiously conservative Republicans?

There is no balance in this political moment. In our modern era of political warfare, the forces of the right and the forces of the left are normally arrayed across the battlefield in full armor. Through talk radio, cable television, Internet and direct mail, the issue of the moment is flogged and the positions blogged. As members of the left decry manipulations of Karl Rove, the corrupt calculations of Tom DeLay and the heartless preachings of Rush Limbaugh, the right inveighs against the godless and biased media, Hollywood, the cultural elites and George Soros, and its timeless, immoral enemies embodied by Ted Kennedy. Every issue is fodder for this millennial conflict and every happening viewed through the lens of partisanship and assessed for its strategic possibilities.

But not this time. This time, while the supporters of Terri Schiavo’s parents, representing a large part of the core of the social conservative movement, have staked out their position, there really is no other side. In this moment of life and death, the personalization of politics has gone too far, and even the Congressional leaders who initially saw this moment as ripe with political advantage, including Tom DeLay and presidential aspirant Bill Frist have since backed away

The rage of the social conservatives is directed at the courts, and their apparent indifference to the central issue of life. It is targeted at the perceived indifference of society and its pro-death bias. In what appear to be the closing moments of the drama, Jeb Bush––the true scion of the political dynasty of Senator Prescott Bush––is being held to account by the Schindler family for his unwillingness to use executive power in the face of judicial intransigence. For those of faith who have embraced this cause, the notion that civil law would confound God’s law is simply unacceptable.

It is Easter morning. Will a God who resurrected his only son not intervene and save the life of Terri Schiavo? This is no metaphorical question, for the central issue in this drama is the intertwining of religious belief and modern medicine, the nature of faith and facts. The Schindler family and their supporters believe that her condition is temporal, even possibly reversible. Life itself is the imperative, and that she is alive is irrefutable. In contrast, the medical facts that have been placed on the record before 19 judges and the Supreme Court appear to be equally irrefutable. No brain activity for years. A dissolved cerebral cortex. Reduce brain size. Eye and facial movements that are merely motor responses to stimuli. These medical facts are confounded by the more simple statements of the family. I spoke to her, Mary Schindler states, and Terri said I want to live.

In the face of this mother’s grief, there is no stepping forward to argue the case for the rule of law, the importance of the judiciary, and the overreaching of the Congress. We are a nation of parents and children. No parent can feel anything but empathy for the Schindlers, and feel the depth of their pain. They are in the midst of the greatest family nightmare one can imagine, and whatever one’s views of how that family tragedy has unfolded, we all become deists in knowing “there but for the grace of God…”

Death with dignity cannot be achieved in the midst of a family conflict overseen by the courts. The apparent dissolution of the family brought together by the marriage of Terri and Michael Schiavo over issues of money and litigation over the course of her illness has resulted in a public dispute played out in black and white that thoughtful observers know must in fact be rich in complexities, for that is the nature of family disputes. Add to the mix a media and punditocracy only too willing to conspire in the politics of personal destruction in pursuit of ratings and viewers, and a circus, however tragic, was assured.

Those on the other “side” of this issue tread lightly when drawn out on cable shows. They speak respectfully of the family, while trying to draw attention to the fact of serial judicial reviews over the years, and consistent findings of fact along the way. But how can one argue against the logic of one more test, of taking a little more time? In the court of public opinion, the videotapes of Terri Schindler are powerful evidence that she is aware and alive. One cannot help but have moments of doubt as to whether the judges have seen what you have seen. The sadness of the moment permeates and no one is prepared to join the battle that the Schindler forces seek.

Where will all of this lead us? The public has spoken with a singular voice in disgust at political manipulations perceived in the Schiavo affair. Will this have any impact on the protagonists once the moment has passed? Will the confluence of forces fighting for Terri Schinder’s right to life see in their own actions the imperative of becoming more expansive in their efforts? If only God can take life, how can the death penalty be countenanced? How can the apparatus of the conservative movement not join with the American bishops of the Catholic Church in fighting to end the death penalty?

The lack of respect across the political spectrum is one of the contributing problems to the depth of our political conflict. Can empathy for the Schindler family lead to some modicum of respect for their view of life? Will the threats of physical retribution against the judges and intentional undermining of the faith in the legal system give pause to the leaders of the right as we stand near the precipice?

Tom DeLay, himself the master of understatement and architect of comity, has claimed that God brought Terri Schiavo to us “to elevate the visibility of what is going on in America… attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others.'' The challenge that our Democratic and Republican leaders face is, at least, to recognize that everything is not about Tom DeLay, and that he and others need to recognize, as the public has, when things have gone too far.

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