Saturday, March 26, 2005

Why We Care

The sad drama of Terri Schiavo is drawing to a close. She is being starved and dehydrated out of a respect for her "rights." One man, a judge, passes sentence, and there is nothing anyone can do. The family cries out in frustration and anger, but their cries are drowned out by Michael Schiavo's grim insistence that Terri be left alone to die. Literally alone, as he bars family members from visiting.

But why do we care? Only a handful of people in this country knew Terri before this whole controversy began. Few if any cared that she lay in a hospice bed, fed with a tube, for the better part of 15 years. Why all of a sudden do we care what happens to her? What makes this one family, this one woman, of such sudden importance to us?

Because as far as this country may have slid morally, as relativistic as we've become, as much as the vocal minority would have us believe that life or death is a "choice" for each of us to make, deep down there is still that chivalrous core that motivates us to care for those who cannot care for themselves. There is still that sense of nobility and grace which leads us to defend the undefended, to nurture the forgotten, to rescue the forsaken.

Our national character has long been one of selfless sacrifice in the name of a higher cause. Men and women fight and die in our armed forces for an ideal of freedom seen in few other places in the world; but in an ever-growing number.

We risk our lives to rescue kittens from trees, and dogs trapped on icy ponds. Firefighters race into burning buildings in the often vain hopes of bringing those trapped and frightened souls back out alive.

And then we hear of a woman, mentally disabled, physically atrophied, who will be starved to death by a judicial order. Her husband locks out family and friends, and prevents any sort of therapy. There is only his undocumented assertion that she wouldn't want to live -- and more than a few smell a rat. Our sense of indignation rises to the surface. We see a helpless individual sentenced to death out of some misbegotten respect for a vauge and legally ephemeral "right to die."

The injustice of it offends us. The inhumanity of the methods infuritates us. The tragedy of it weighs heavily on our hearts. Why? Because we are human. Because we are still a good, and just, and noble people at our core, and we value life above all else.

We believe in the possibilites that one more day, one more medical miracle might bring. We cling to hope at times and in places where often it would seem no hope could survive. And as we cling to that last desparate hope of survival, even as the flames and smoke swirl around us, the fireman suddenly breaks through the door and carries us to safety. The police storm in and rescue the hostages. Our buddy shows up with another squad of Marines just as we fire our last round and expect to be overrun.

We are a people of hope, and we see that hope being denied, snuffed out for reasons no one can adequately explain or justify. We see the scar this decision will leave on our national psyche; and the damage to our national character will, we fear, be irreversible.

We care because we haven't yet forgotten how. Though now, perhaps as never before, that day looms near.

Good bye, Terri. Godspeed. We will miss you, if only for what you have shown us about ourselves.