The absolute mania that was the Terri Schiavo news story has left me sputtering and dumbfounded. The news media succeeded in making a private individual’s matter into – literally – a federal case, turning it into a veritable maelstrom of morals, misery and alleged malfeasance. The 24-hour news stations unleashed a contagion, a single-minded mob hysteria, so virulent that it achieved what few natural disasters and global epidemics have ever been able to do – fill the seats of the legislative assembly for debate, and then, vote – all in one night!

Grandstanding on baseball steroids had only whetted the media and the public’s appetite for svelte, rambunctious representatives in full-throttled parliamentary action. President George W. Bush flew across the country on Air Force One to sign the legislation. When it came to important, national matters of state like this, our governmental leaders needed to take swift action without too much preponderance or deliberation, and luckily it did so despite the dastardly attempts made by the minority opposition. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reinforced the urgency of the moment, saying “The few remaining objecting House Democrats have so far cost Mrs. Schiavo two meals already today.”

The Schiavo fiasco is illustrative of pure democracy in action, the kind liberals only seem to fantasize of today. Religious protestors and agitators on behalf of Schiavo’s parents attracted media attention to an area where they believed courts and laws failed, pushing the matter forward onto the national stage. Despite small support in opinion polls, they ultimately won a resounding legislative vote aimed at the judiciary.

Of course, this is precisely why I detest democracy, and align my principles alongside those of the founding fathers who wired our constitution to be resistant to such fast, ephemeral, populist passion. However, mass media now seems to routinely trump our republican safeguards. Our government has become sickeningly accustomed to seizing upon every piece of trash that floats down the cable news channel and then blowing it up to epic proportions on tenuous claims of general applicability to larger issues.

The federal legislation spawned from this case is reminiscent of those that came from the Laci Peterson case. I know of at least one other occurrence where a man killed a woman pregnant with his unborn child, which raised the same issues of general applicability about the legal status of unborn children. Yet this case received scant media attention beyond the local level, most likely because none of the individuals were pretty, rich and white Californians.

There are several reasons why, as a nation, we do not want to decide general public policy on the basis of individual cases. One such reason is the prejudicial, illogical selection of case examples by media. Another is the handicapping of meaningful compromise when we turn a private, family dispute – like the Schiavo case – into a federal issue. Nothing helps national unity like having political parties take sides in family squabbles, right President Bush? Remember, he’s a “uniter,” not a divider.

Finally, it’s lunacy for the federal legislature to reach down into a state court for any one particular case. Do we really want it to routinely interject itself into individual cases, crossing over its own bounds of federalism, states’ rights and judicial review?

Our federal government doesn’t even bother to do this much with death penalty cases, situations wherein it has much more direct responsibility and it isn’t just a matter between family members and their doctors.

I am a strong skeptic of government in general, and I believe it’s a horrendous idea for our society to second-guess protracted court decisions on an individual basis – purely motivated by passion, created from talk show-type journalism. This sort of immobilizing legislative action is the same as inaction on larger, more comprehensive, national issues. If the political trend of the future continues to be to interject politics into every sphere of private life, then our pretensions of liberty will feel hollow, indeed. Since when did conservatism come to stand for the abandonment of traditional processes, departure from pre-existent law and the increased reach of the federal government to solve most societal issues?

Ellis can be reached at wellis@campustimes.org.



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