Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Cindy Sheehan and the Pitfalls of Moral Authority

The Cindy Sheehan story bubbled up during my vacation, so Camp Casey was a going concern by the time I had any inkling. The news hit me via amusing juxtaposition; pro-Cindy emails from MoveOn nestled in my overflowing inbox alongside anti-Sheehan rants from Christopher Hitchens in Slate.

Once I found out what was going on I was awash in misgivings. As a former prosecutor I have developed an allergy to the notion of victim status conferring unimpeachable moral authority. While the victim of a catastrophe can inform our view of the human cost of the tragedy, it does not follow that the victim has a more compelling right to say what is to be done.

If anything, a person grieving a tragic loss is less likely to have a rational -- and therefore accurate -- view of the landscape. My answer to the infamous Michael Dukakis debate question -- what would you want if your wife was raped and murdered -- is as follows. I would want the perpetrator dead. I would want him to die in protracted, agonizing pain. I would want to hear his screams for mercy and I would want to deliver the final blow. In fact, if my wife was killed by a careless driver, my feelings would be largely the same. All of which is to say that my feelings would be irrational, and shouldn't be considered valid guides in a policy debate.

So Cindy Sheehan made me nervous. It made me nervous to see the Left embrace her. It made me more nervous to hear that her stand is basically withdraw now. It made me very very nervous to hear her loopy statement about her son dying for Isreal and her even loopier denial that she wrote it.

But mostly, it made me nervous that antiwar activists were saying, implicitly and in some cases explicitly, that her status as a victim gives her great moral weight. Because most people with her status possess diametrically opposite views.

Today's BJ has a well-reported piece about local families of KIA servicemen and their views on the war. Predictably, they support the war, with at least one busting out the ultimate koolaid-drinking take: the weapons were there and were moved. I don't fault a grieving mother for saying this -- it's an irrational attempt to make sense of her loss.

On the other hand, the compassion those folks show for Sheehan and the respectful tone of their disagreement was striking. If the people making the koolaid had shown similar compassion, I might actually have some hope.