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Symbol of Emptiness

Terri Schiavo Was a Woman, Not an Idea

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; Page C01

In the end, most Americans were never really on a first-name basis with Terri Schiavo. She was Terri to the Florida politicians who passed "Terri's Law," later ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, and she was Terri to the protesters who gathered outside her hospice. She was Terri to Jeb Bush, who used all his powers as governor of Florida to keep her alive, and she was Terri to men like Tony Perkins of the conservative Family Research Council, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who led an extraordinary legal intervention in her case. But to most of America, she never became "Terri," even as the electronic media kept up a remorseless "Terri" death watch, pretending intimacy because that's how television makes difficult stories feel personal.

People magazine, which also lapsed into "Terri" speak, constructed the debate this way: "If Terri is permitted to die, [her mother] Mary warns, 'She will become a poster child for euthanasia.' If Terri is forced to live, [her husband] Michael told ABC's Nightline, 'you better call your congressman, because they're going to run your life.' "


The sun comes up behind a makeshift shrine outside Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla. (Steve Nesius -- AP)

One woman, different symbolic meanings.

So was the case of Terri Schiavo, like so many other arguments in American civil life, all a matter of sorting out the meaning of the symbol "Terri"? Certainly, as so often happens in arguments over symbols, people could look at the same set of facts and see radically different things. Some people saw in the reflexive motions of Schiavo's face, as seen on a short video clip from several years ago, a symbol of God's inviolable gift of life. And perhaps others saw in her blank, unfocused eyes a symbol of how tragedy can be exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

But, for the most part, Schiavo never became "Terri" -- contested symbol -- because people refused to presume that she stood for something larger than the sad story of one woman lying unresponsive in a bed in Florida. If anything, her story is a case study in failed symbolmaking, an example of a symbol rejected. And that may prove a watershed in American public life, a moment that revealed the limits and dangers of using emotion to turn people into ideas.

Schiavo couldn't speak for herself, and she was hidden from view, in a hospice. This silence, this absence, made her an attractive figure for people with the presumption to speak for her. On the part of her family, this was understandable. In the end, the case came down to the words of Michael Schiavo, who made the reasonable claim that he knew his wife's deepest, inmost wishes. Her parents certainly had a right to speak for her but, the courts decided, not the right to overrule her husband.

But what of the politicians? Did they have a right to speak for her? Or simply a right to speak about her? Those who felt that she must, at all costs, be kept alive blurred the distinction. Without Terri Schiavo to contradict them, they constructed a Terri who was childlike, defenseless, but still craved life. If you looked at a particular moment in a particular videotape of Schiavo -- as she stares straight up into the camera -- you could almost hear that Terri, pleading directly to the viewer. If you looked at another moment, when her mother is staring straight into her daughter's eyes, you might think you were seeing the signs of consciousness that her family, despite all the medical wisdom to the contrary, insisted were still there.

The Terri constructed by right-to-life advocates, politicians and activists was a fiction, but we all indulge in some form of this fiction at one time or another. We talk to our dead, even though we know they can't hear us. We speak to the unconscious, we kiss coffins, and pick up the conversation, just where it ended, at the silent grave of an old friend. A little bit of irrationality, when it comes to loss, is inevitable.

Even Michael Schiavo, on "Larry King Live," lapsed into the present tense, saying, "This is what Terri wants. She does not want to be in this condition." No. It's what she wanted. But you can sympathize with a man who, even as he was arguing that his wife doesn't feel or think anything, lapses into present tense, the latent hope that his wife was in some way an active participant in a decision being made for her.

If Terri had remained just this, she might have become a successful symbol, a shorthand reminder of something painful, and difficult and all too common. We would think "Terri" and be reminded that life is tough, that bad things happen, that modern medicine makes some things easier and many things harder.

But the creators of Terri went further. She began saying more than it was quite possible to believe. She was laughing and talking to relatives. She waved her arms when the subject of dancing came up, she even tried to say "I want to live," according to family members. "Terri" was in private communication with her creators and she could be heard only by her creators. To believe in this Terri required more and more disbelief in medical science.

The rhetoric surrounding this new Terri was troubling. Her husband was trying to kill her, murder her, silence her. She was, it was suggested, a symbol for all the defenseless, voiceless, suffering of the Earth. Terri was every unborn child, every elderly relative who has become a burden. She was the sacrificial lamb in a culture of death. Removing the feeding tube from Terri Schiavo was a crime so heinous it required intervention from the president of the United States and, if that failed, even the suspension of law. Her parents compared her, as she wasted away, to a victim of a concentration camp, which seemed a rhetorical gesture just shy of claiming that killing Terri was tantamount to genocide.

And yet Terri, the symbol, never really came together because most Americans, it seems, never believed in this broader, more desperate, more ideologically laden symbolic figure. Polls showed that Americans were overwhelmingly repelled by Congress's intervention in the Schiavo case. Now that she's dead, it feels like a relief. Not because Terri Schiavo stood for some problem that we have swept under the rug, but because the case of Terri Schiavo should never have become a national issue in the first place.

As our society battles over the degree to which science, or religion, will direct public debate, the Schiavo case may mark a limit of sorts. Science offered no happy answers, no guarantee of miraculous recovery, and no moral certainty about whether letting her die was right or wrong. Religion -- one strand of it at least -- offered hope, and the absolute moral certainty that keeping her alive was the only decent course of action. Science asked us to do something extraordinarily difficult, which is to imagine the impossible: what it is like to feel nothing, think nothing, know nothing, experience nothing. Religion offered Terri, a simple, quiet, needy being.

Modern Western rationalism began, not coincidentally, with a nightmare of the mind entrapped -- a nightmare that may, in some half-remembered way, haunt us when the old division between the mind and the body is laid out as starkly as in the Schiavo case. In Rene Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy, he posed a hypothetical: What if everything we think we know is all conjured by an evil genius? From that horrifying premise, he reasoned his way to a new kind of rational certainty. "I am something real and really existing, but what thing am I?" he asked. And his answer has rung down through the ages: "A thing which thinks."

Terri Schiavo wasn't entrapped by an evil genius. Preserving life is a fundamental value. But being "a thing which thinks" is for many people the essence of being human, to which we cling even more than to life itself. Americans who knew that Terri Schiavo was, sadly, no longer a thing which thinks, weren't able to believe all the claims being made in her name, on her behalf. If the inventors of Terri lost their battle to make her a compelling symbol of vulnerability, compassion and humanity, it's because they demanded too much unreason of us. And in the process, they looked more like Descartes' sorcerer than humanity's defender.


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