You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

On Not Knowing Where We Are in History

Will Terri Schiavo's case prove to be a fateful turn of events in history or just another shudder of fervent religiosity?

Ever since the staggering pictures of naked Iraqi men being brutalized by young men and women in American uniform at Abu Ghraib first surfaced last April, only to be followed by the stunning news of torture and murder of prisoners not only in Iraqi detention camps but also in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, and now, most recently, the astonishing reports of American operatives abducting suspected foreign terrorists and sending them to our "allies" in Syria and Egypt to torture them on our behalf--with its corny, yet horrifying Orwellian name, "extraordinary rendition"--I repeatedly find myself struggling to recognize these United States.

I was telling this to a philosopher friend of mine the other day, who then reeled off a list of similar disorienting government actions: the appointment of Alberto Gonzales, who helped draft the legal foundation for the American policy of torture, to the office of Attorney General; the nomination of John Bolton, a longtime vocal opponent of multilateralism, to the United Nations; the nomination of Paul Wolfowitz, another well-known antagonist to international cooperation, to the World Bank; Bush's single-minded crusade to dismantle Social Security when the country is faced with far more urgent domestic matters like the health-care crisis. What could Bush and his ilk be thinking? He answered that these people simply could not be serious. Why cut taxes for the rich when there is an already exploding deficit? Why drill for an insignificant amount of oil in the protected wilds of the Arctic rather than take even the most modest steps toward conservation? Such actions make no sense. We agreed they were capricious and arbitrary, even perverse. I told him that reading the newspaper and watching TV these days, I find myself wondering more and more often, where am I?

So two Sundays ago, as I was clicking through the TV channels and happened upon the emergency congressional session on the Terri Schiavo law, I felt slightly less dislocated than usual, since I imagined I was seeing the old, familiar--albeit bizarre--drama of homegrown Southern Bible-thumpers locked in a battle with modern, secular upholders of the law. I knew, of course, it was unusual for Congress to debate legislation at 11:00 on a Sunday evening, particularly during spring recess. Yet the speakers' overblown rhetoric and sanctimonious posturing nevertheless put me in mind of other distinctly American judicial follies, like the Scopes trial of the 1920s and the more recent Mapplethorpe controversy. Disgusted by the trite spectacle of our elected representatives playing to the cameras, I changed the channel.

But my sense that I knew where I was began to dim when I read the next morning that Congress passed legislation specifically designed to aid Schiavo's parents and that Bush had signed the bill into law in the middle of the night. Given that our country is mired in a senseless war abroad and is moving toward economic collapse at home, I was at a loss as to why this particular family's personal ordeal deserved an emergency session of Congress and required the president, who had previously refused to interrupt his vacations for anything, to rush back to Washington. I understood that the life of a woman who had suffered extreme brain damage was at stake, but the whole thing still felt out of proportion, just as it seemed to have materialized out of nowhere. Another example of the arbitrariness of politics under Bush, I thought. But then, as I read The New York Times, the strange legal maneuverings began to fit into a more familiar political story line: The Republicans, especially Bush and the congressional leadership, were cynically exploiting the family conflict over Schiavo's fate to curry favor with their so-called base, the Christian coalition. The Times thus cast the story as a battle between those who support the rule of law and those pandering to the right-to-life political machine. This seemingly accurate picture of American politics today was so dispiriting that I was content to accept it and to think no more of the Schiavo case.

That is, until the following day, when I saw a picture in the newspaper of a young man who had sealed his mouth shut with a large piece of tape with the word LIFE printed neatly across it. The dramatic black-and-white closeup of the young man's face taken from below--his eyes narrowed to two slits, his nose abstracted to two holes, his mouth replaced with the grotesquely out-of-proportion word LIFE--startled me. And when I read the columns surrounding the picture--one in which the Times reported that "the Schiavo case has surprised at every turn" and that a law professor believed that "much depended on the politics of the judges randomly selected to serve on the panel"--I felt once again the utter strangeness of our times. This feeling only intensified as I now pored over more articles. With each piece of news, I felt more and more disoriented, for such going-ons were not politics as usual in America.

Perhaps I had missed something, I thought, since this had not been a story that I had had the stomach to read about. I went to the other room and pulled last week's newspapers from the recycling pile so I could now read every article having to do with Schiavo. It turned out that I had missed a great deal, for I had read only the legal analyses, having skipped over the background stories and barely glancing at the pictures accompanying them. Now they caught my eye and I was astounded by what I saw. On the front page of Saturday's paper (March 19) was a color picture of a line of protesters, mainly young women, heads bowed, kneeling in prayer, in front of Michael Schiavo's home. Inside the paper was a large black-and-white photo of more protesters, but this time outside of Schiavo's hospice--one woman, who had traveled all the way from Rochester, New York, held a hand-made sign reading "I luv U"; another, her eyes closed, rosary in hand, crucifix hanging from a chain on her neck, appeared transported in prayer. According to the article, dozens of supporters of right-to-life causes had been gathering outside the hospice. Some of them had also sealed their mouths with tape with the word "LIFE" written across it. So, this wasn't just one young man's bizarre method of demonstrating his solidarity with Schiavo, I thought. But then came a sentence that floored me: "Several parents pushed severely disabled children in wheelchairs, including one with a feeding tube." What on earth were they doing there?

Searching for some kind of answer, I turned to Sunday's paper only to have my attention drawn to descriptions of the protesters and their home-made signs: "Colorado Loves Terri, Stop Renegade Judges, Michael, Give Terri Back to her Parents, Who's Next?" It amazed me that people were apparently so moved by Schiavo's circumstances that they came from all over the country to be part of a vigil. And it became clear that they wanted to commit acts of civil disobedience so they would be arrested before the news cameras. Throughout the following week, I was riveted by the images of men and women trying to bring plastic cups of water to Schiavo repeatedly crossing the police line at the hospice. I wondered: What were they thinking? Were they picturing themselves as Sixties freedom riders risking their safety for a noble cause? Of course they were not facing the murderous rage of mobs of white supremacists, but, still, they were doing something.

Civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance--I had always thought these tactics belonged to progressive movements. And now here they were being used by conservatives--in truth, by those whom many of us regard as the lunatic fringe of the fundamentalist right. The world turned upside down, but the transformative social power of religious faith was not foreign to American history; it had, after all, fueled the abolition of slavery as well as the more recent Civil Rights movement. (Wednesday's paper confirmed this impression by printing a picture redolent with civil-rights associations: the Reverend Jesse Jackson walking hand-in-hand with Schiavo's mother on one side and a priest locked arm-in-arm with her and another priest on the other.) Now, of course, religious faith seems to have become a force behind right-wing causes. But the desire to preserve life is not exactly a reactionary position, just as the Christian virtues of compassion, humility, and charity are not exactly things that progressive people are against. What is galling is to hear Bush speak piously of "erring on the side of life" when in such matters of conscience as state executions in Texas or the deaths of innocent, noncombatant Iraqi men, women, and children, he has revealed himself to have a heart of stone. Here, I thought, was an opportunity for progressives not only to revive the epithet "hypocrite," but also to enlarge our political imagination by articulating what a society based on the obviously worthy principle of the sanctity of life might look like.

Such was my frame of mind when I returned to the Times, reading every article I could find. Yet, as I read--ever more agitatedly--I couldn't shake the thought that the religious right has an actual dying woman as their cause while we who support the court decisions have only the abstraction that is the law. The rule of law is of course everything in a democracy, but its emotional power is practically nil. And this helps to explain why some people are so moved that they feel compelled to travel to Florida to protest and why other people like me stay at home and rifle through the newspaper in confusion. This was disturbing enough, but the more closely I read, I began to notice that I kept seeing the same names over and over again. The only one I recognized, and vaguely at that, was Randall Terry, who is a spokesman for Schiavo's parents, but also the founder of Operation Rescue, a group I remembered from the '90s for its protests against abortion clinics and doctors. The others meant nothing to me, but they were at the forefront of the battle--the Reverend Pat Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Reverend Frank Pavone, a Catholic priest often seen at the side of Schiavo's mother, who runs a group called Priests for Life. The names of two conservative Christian Florida Republicans with very close ties to Jeb Bush--Representative Dave Weldon (who was one of the doctors who held forth on Schiavo's condition) and newly elected Senator Mel Martinez--were everywhere, since the two had been instrumental in shepherding the Schiavo bill through Congress.

I now realized that by assimilating all the political grandstanding around Schiavo to what I imagined was the latest and perhaps most self-serving and cynical episode in the long-running battle of puritanism against liberalism, I had missed what was novel and important: Saving "Terri" was a cause c?l?bre for a large network of well-organized and well-funded pro-life groups, the same network that had so efficiently turned out the vote for Bush during the last election. The case of Schiavo, with Jeb Bush celebrated as hero for having ordered doctors not to remove her feeding tube in 2003, had become so well-known in conservative circles that her brother was a guest of honor at a rally for Catholics at the Republican National Convention. I could now see that the protests in Florida, even the gesture of taping one's mouth shut with the word "LIFE," were part of this well-coordinated political offensive, just as the "private relief" bill passed by Congress and the earlier law passed by the Florida legislature were the culmination of years of savvy lobbying by anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell research, anti-euthanasia, and disability advocate groups, who were expert at mobilizing their true-believer supporters. Article after article reported that congressional offices were being flooded by tens of thousands of emails and phone calls demanding that the government do something to save "Terri."

It then occurred to me that I no longer knew where we were, historically speaking. Were these pro-life organizations and their supporters, not to mention the protesters being arrested for civil disobedience, actually at the forefront of a moral vanguard that one day in the future would look like the abolitionist movement? This thought shook me, but I knew as a historian that the abolitionists had been dismissed by their contemporaries--Southern slaveholders but also complacent Northerners content to rest with the status quo--as a fanatical religious minority not to be taken seriously. Now that Schiavo has at last died, will her death be a turning point in American history, galvanizing people of faith to take concerted action through the legislatures but also perhaps through their own hands? As the events have unfolded over the last weeks, Michael Schiavo, various judges connected with the case, and even the police standing guard outside the hospice have received death threats. On Tuesday, March 29, an anonymous caller informed the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office that a bomb was in the area and that it would explode when Schiavo dies.

I couldn't get out of my mind a diagram from a history textbook that listed the causes of the Civil War next to a thermometer with the temperature rising until it reached the boiling point, from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Nullification Crisis of 1832 to the ominous decade of the 1850s--the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law; the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act and the years of violence known as "Bleeding Kansas"; the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision; John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859; and finally, Lincoln's election in 1860. At every point, the people living through these conflicts did not recognize them as the fateful events that would lead them headlong into civil war. Will some true believer presently unknown to us violently take matters into his or her own hands so that he or she will one day occupy a similar place in history as John Brown? History, of course, never repeats itself, but I couldn't help wondering, are we now living through what, from the perspective of future generations, will turn out to have been another such fateful time? Or will it instead appear as just another episode in the history of fervent religiosity that periodically convulses American society, inevitably exhausts itself, and then lies dormant in the underground of consciousness until the next time?

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein