John Tierney: Mourning in America

Nick Berg’s father does us liberals no favors with his childish rants. Already, rightie blogs are pointing to this and saying, “See how liberals respond to the news of Zarqawi’s death?” I can’t stand Bush (which you may have figured out by now), but equating him to Zarqawi isn’t going to further our cause.

Mourning in America

Published: June 10, 2006

Michael Berg, a Green Party candidate for Congress on Long Island, announced on national television that he regretted the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He didn’t blame Zarqawi for beheading an American contractor. The man responsible was President Bush — “the real terrorist.”

Any other politician would have been vilified for saying that. But Berg, as the father of the American who was beheaded, belongs to a new politically invulnerable class. Arguing with someone in mourning just isn’t done — unless, of course, you are Ann Coulter and you have a new book to sell.

She managed to offend everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bill O’Reilly by suggesting that some of the activist widows of the Sept. 11 victims were enjoying their husbands’ deaths. That’s over the top even for Coulter. But she has identified a real problem: how do you conduct a political argument with grieving relatives?

Coulter faults liberals for exploiting victims and their relatives as human shields for their arguments against the war and in favor of gun control. But conservatives use these tactics too. President Bush had the parents of a slain Iraqi soldier stand up during the State of the Union address as a tacit endorsement of his policy. Republican widows of Sept. 11 victims have been exploiting their status to oppose the Democratic widows.

America is supposed to be a government of laws, not men, but the surest way to pass a law is to name it after someone, ideally a girl or woman. Dozens of states have passed Megan’s Law. There’s another measure against sex offenders in Ohio called Nicole’s Law, not to be confused with the Nicole’s Law in Massachusetts, which requires carbon-monoxide detectors in homes.

There is a federal Katie’s Law (giving money to rural police agencies), a New Mexico Katie’s Law (requiring DNA samples to be collected from suspects), and a Minnesota Katie’s Law (providing money to track sex offenders).

The ultimate in custom legislation was Terri’s Law, designed solely to prolong Terri Schiavo’s life.

There’s also Kristen’s Act, Jennifer’s Law, Amiee’s Law, Brian’s Bill, and the Hillary J. Sarias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prevention Act.

Some of these laws undoubtedly make sense, but the names appended to them cut short the sort of debate required.

Grieving relatives certainly have a right to be heard, and their stories need to be considered by legislators and judges. But having tragedy strike your family does not make you an expert on public policy. Instead, it warps your perspective. You become the most narrow special-interest group, obsessed with redressing a personal loss no matter what the cost to society.

When Michael Dukakis was asked during a presidential debate if he’d want to execute a man who raped his wife, he blundered by calmly explaining his opposition to capital punishment. The audience wanted to hear an angry, vengeful husband, but Dukakis tried to be a dispassionate arbiter of justice — a completely different role.

When those roles are conflated by victims-turned-activists, the result tends to be good television and bad policy. The parents of abducted children couldn’t anticipate all the wasted police resources and harassment of innocent adults that resulted from their laws. Putting photogenic patients in front of Congressional committees is not the best way to divvy up budgets for medical research.

The widows and widowers of the victims of Sept. 11 are not urban planners who should get veto power over the rebuilding at Ground Zero. The parents of Americans killed in Iraq do not have special expertise in foreign policy.

Whether they support the war or not, they are expressing their personal views, and not necessarily even their slain children’s. Cindy Sheehan camped outside President Bush’s ranch in Texas to protest the war, but her son voluntarily re-enlisted before his death.

But as long as television viewers respond to pictures of tearful relatives, there’s no way to stop them from having a disproportionate influence.

I can’t imagine how I would feel if my child were killed. Nor could I imagine how my family would feel if I met a violent death, but I’m pretty sure I would rather not become a symbol for anyone else’s cause. The world doesn’t need a John’s law.

The Discussion: 2 Comments

Thanks to Richard for posting Tierney (His columns are harder to find on blogs than the more obvious darlings of liberalism (Dowd being most popular of all). All NYT columnists make for interestiing reading, regardless of political stripe.

Tierney seems to be suggesting it might be better for families of victims to just shut up rather than speak publicly promoting causes related to their loved ones’ deaths. I disagree. Cindy Sheehan (and Michael Berg to a degree) speak for a large number of parents of dead soldiers who agree with them that their children died needlessly in a failed cause sold to the American public under false pretences. These are voices that deserve to be heard, not silenced.
In many cases, I’d prefer to hear honest feelings voiced by thoughtful grieving parents, than to hear slick spin put out by well financed politicians. And Tierney thinks it’s the grieving parents’ perspective that’s warped, and not
the power addicted politicians whose allegiance, too often, is to their own and their financial backers’ aggrandisement?

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Berg’s beliefs,
which angered many, may turn out to be correct or not. Berg believes it was counterproductive to
kill Zarqawi, because it will not serve to lessen the violence. On the contrary, it may serve to mobilize even more terror recruits, and further increase the death and mayhem in Iraq.
I tend to agree with Berg that Bush has more blood of innocents on his hands than Zarqawi.
Zarqawi would never have gained a foothold in Iraq if Bush hadn’t destabilized the country in an ill conceived and incompetently waged war.
It may be hard for many Americans to contemplate, but there is more active Islamist militancy in Iraq and the world now than there ever was prior to Bush’s foolhardy invasion. And there are tens of thousands more dead (including 2,400+ Americans) now ,due to Bush’s war, than there would be if Saddam, bad as he was, was still in power. Berg said Pres. Bush has as much responsibility for his son’s death as has Zarqawi. I think Berg has many views worth hearing, unpleasant to hear as they might be
to some Americans.

June 10, 2006 @ 4:24 pm | Comment

how do you conduct a political argument with grieving relatives?

easy. you find pro-iraq war and pro-republican grieving relatives and let them go toe to toe with the anti-war grieving relatives.

because only people who lost loved ones has special insight on the war in iraq.

and if an anti- iraq war general criticizes your policy, find a pro- iraq war general to defend you.

because military people are the only ones who are credible when discussing iraq.

June 16, 2006 @ 6:31 am | Comment

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