Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo - A Perfect Storm

Like many others, I have been surprised by the passion displayed in unexpected quarters by the Terri Schiavo case. In the case of those who passionately share my belief that she has a right to live, this has been heartening. In the case of those who passionately want her to be killed it has been infuriating. In the case of those who passionately want everyone to shut up and stop talking about Terri it has been frustrating. In the case of those passionately stating falsehood as fact and characterizing those with superior information as ignorant it has been darkly amusing.

But it has got me thinking about where some of the passion is arising, and why every statement made by almost anyone involved with the case provokes another explosion in some quarter. Here are a few themes I’ve noticed coming together making this case such a “perfect storm.”

The first theme is probably the most obvious. There is a smouldering resentment among pro-life believers in this country that began when Roe vs. Wade removed the issue of abortion from the control of the legislature, and moved it into the courts. Since then, our courts have become the primary nemesis of pro-lifers, tossing out legislation in favor of life seemingly at whim. As such they have also become the primary hope for those opposed to the pro-life movement, who realize the tide has already turned against them in the legislature, and so cling with desperation to the continued behavior of the judiciary. This drives the kind of passion normally seen in elections into court cases, because there is simply no other recourse regarding this issue.

This leads directly into the second element of the storm which is an out-of-control judiciary. Somehow we have come to a point in this country when a shockingly large number of judges have decided to usurp legislative function. In the Schiavo case this has been a repeated theme. The other symptom of our out-of-control judiciary is its inflated self-importance. The resistance of judges in this case to simply stop killing Terri while there is still a chance - however remote - that her advocates might prevail simply cannot be squared with a judiciary respectful of its proper role.

A third element of the storm is the rapid de-valuing of life in society at large. People succumbing to this mindset deeply resent the pro-life movement. I can honestly say that as recently as five years ago I would never have believed that I would see a court order the execution of a mentally disabled woman. I knew there were advocates of such things, but this was so far outside the mainstream – I thought – that the danger was far in the future. I knew there were plenty of “right to die” advocates, but outside of men like Peter Singer I truly didn’t see such a movement quickly making the jump into forced euthanization. Yet in a shocking number of cases it has. And those who made that jump deeply resent anyone calling such a thing wrong - considering it logically bound with everything from living wills to their personal right to dignity.

A fourth element of the storm is rising anti-Christian bigotry among many of the more secular elements of society. We routinely see Christians – specifically Evangelical Christians and orthodox Catholics – written about in terms that would qualify as “hate-speech” if applied to protected minorities. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of such statements, you might not even notice. But it’s pervasive and common. This is why it wasn’t surprising to me in the least that one of the first arguments used to discredit the defenders of Terri Schiavo’s life was to label them with terms like “religious right-wing,” or “extreme religious right.” Those labels have power in anti-Christian circles, who need know little more about someone than the label to presume sinister intent.

Another element of the storm is the cynical-chic culture, which was captured quite well by James Lileks yesterday:

Then there are the people for whom this is an opportunity for horrid mockery, the people who care about nothing (but will find someday that nothing cares so much about them it has taken over their hearts completely.)

Perhaps a final element (at least the final one I’ll note) accounts for the “pox on both your houses” folks. Aside from occasionally take shots of opportunity at a particularly inviting target on either side, these people principally seem impassioned by the notion that this story isn’t over yet so they can go on to more important things. I suspect part of this motivation is a personal distaste for any political issue so divisive that compromise and resolution seem impossible, therefore leaving one with the horrid prospect of having to choose between “extremes”; “extreme” in this case being defined as something extremely politically divisive.


Blogger Gary Matthew Miller said...


Superb post. I'm proud to be associated with you.

1:33 PM  
Blogger LearnedFoot said...


Check your e-mail (if you haven't already)


1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why, other than for religious or other superstitious reasons, anyone would frame the argument the way you do with regard to a brain dead corpse that has been kept alive for 15 years? In my humble opinion, her body has been artificially maintained for very selfish reasons.
And now congress is making political hay.
Let the poor body go.

5:17 PM  
Anonymous triple_a said...

Obviously you did not read the post before this Mr. Anonymous. To many of us on this third rock from the sun, life does not come and go at the convenience of the living.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Anonymous, we'll put you in the "passionately stating falsehood as fact and characterizing those with superior information as ignorant" category. She's not brain dead. She's mentally disabled. Her body is not "artificially kept alive." She needs only food and water like the rest of us. She may not even need a feeding tube, as prior nurses have testified they fed her orally and she was able to swallow. But her guardian banned this.

You creep me out with your casual acceptance that she's no longer a real life to you.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Gary Matthew Miller said...


You fail to take into account the implications of your worldview. If there is no absolute truth as revealed at Sinai, then we are all just walking corpses. Indeed, you and I are not even having this electronic conversation -- two group of randomly assembled molecules have formed into something we have kidded ourselves into calling "consciousness". As a result, there is no morality. But I'm sure you're not one of those mysticists who believes it was "immoral" to invade Iraq or that Bush's budget cuts (what cuts?) are "immoral".

11:14 AM  

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