IN DOZENS of quiet rooms across this nation, in hospitals, hospices, and private homes, severely injured or terminally ill Americans were passing quietly away yesterday with dignity. Most of us did not hear about them, nor about their loved ones who had reconciled themselves to the sad fact that trying to postpone these deaths would not be love but cruelty.
Instead, all eyes were focused on the fate of poor Terri Schiavo, who lay in a Florida hospice unknowing and unfeeling at the center of a vast media and political circus. For 15 years, she had been in a persistent vegetative state, doomed never to get any better, trapped in a nether world between life and death and not belonging to either.
Terri Schiavo - the flesh-and-blood woman that is, and not the falsely created symbol - died yesterday, some 13 days after her feeding tube was removed. She apparently died peacefully and not in the agony that had been so emotionally predicted. By any sane reckoning, her passing was a mercy.
But rationality didn't figure much in the protracted legal fight waged against her husband, Michael Schiavo, by her parents and their supporters. They did not accept that she had told her husband that she did not want to be kept alive in such circumstances, nor did they have any respect for the ancient principle that spouses are ultimately the ones empowered to make such decisions.
What Americans saw in the Terri Schiavo case was a full flight from reason under the guise of sanctimony. This was a right to life argument raised to the level of fetish, not a force for human dignity but actually as an agent for its subversion. If her misguided supporters had succeeded, Terri Schiavo's "life" would have been more imprisonment in a vacant mind manifestly incapable of joy or hope or even prayer.
Every maneuver was tried to perpetuate her physical limbo. No calumny was too big to paint her husband as some sort of heartless demon, no lie about her condition was too implausible not to be put about as a counter to the terrible truth - and all in the name of God and humanity.
Political principle also never stood in the way of those who wanted to keep her tethered to a feeding tube. In both the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress, conservatives who say they fear the reach of government fell over themselves in trying to put its intruding hand into a private dispute.
Fortunately, the courts stood firm for common sense. Politicians can't now blame the activist judges of caricature, because many of them were conservative. The U.S. Supreme Court itself declined six times to intervene.
And, by and large, the American people were not fooled. As public opinion polls show, Americans by a solid majority objected to Congress becoming involved. That should be no surprise. In the place where ordinary people actually reside, most loved ones are not kept alive artificially for years and years beyond all reason. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, before he became the Republicans' arch hypocrite, removed life support from his own father.
If there is one thing good to come out of this sad affair, it will be a rush to sign living wills. The problem, of course, is that for those who think Terri Schiavo's death is murder, a living will is logically suicide. If such extremism ever becomes general in America, intensely private decisions will be a lost prerogative.
God bless Terri Schiavo. May she rest in peace.
But may God also save this republic from the angry and unthinking forces unleashed on her behalf.