Broadcasting Grief

We should remember that misery breeds anger, not wisdom.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The liberal media is delighted with Cindy Sheehan. This is the woman who lost a son in Iraq and has camped outside President Bush’s Crawford Ranch, intending to stay until the President speaks with her or returns to Washington. For the reporters waiting around in the dusty heat of West Texas, Ms. Sheehan is a godsend, a dramatic, heart-wrenching story that gives the media both a telegenic drama and another opportunity for indulging their dislike of Bush and the war in Iraq.

No one should trivialize Ms. Sheehan’s grief, nor fail to understand why she is angry and wants to hold someone accountable. The worst thing a parent can experience is to lose a child, and those of us blessed enough not to have had that experience cannot judge the reaction of those who have. Yet the media’s eagerness to publicize and exploit a grieving mother’s anger and sorrow can be criticized, for it points to a larger pathology in our culture — the privileging of the suffering victim as someone who possesses superior insight and so must be heeded and catered to.

This elevation of the victim into a combination sage and secular martyr reflects conditions peculiar to the modern world. Most important is the simple fact that compared to the vast majority of humans who’ve ever lived, we in the West today have been freed from the everyday suffering and misery that earlier generations accepted as part of human existence. For them, as the Greek playwright Euripides put it, “Suffering is necessity for mortals.” Daily physical pain, early death, famine, malnutrition, chronic disease, violence from fellow humans and nature –– all were simply non-negotiable realities of life that had to be endured. Suffering didn’t make you special; it just made you human, like everybody else.

We moderns, of course, have eliminated many of those evils, while magnifying and dramatizing what suffering remains. And this success has created a monumental change in how we view life and its possibilities: rather than accepting that suffering is a necessity, we view it as an anomaly, a glitch in the system that should be corrected and that, given how litigious we are, someone is responsible for. The result is our outrageous expectations about human life and its risks and costs. We still want to achieve our various noble aims and good intentions –– peace, freedom, security, and prosperity for all –– but only if we can do so without making anybody suffer or even feel bad, including our enemies. We want utopia, a world in which everyone is well fed, secure, and happy, but we want it on the cheap.

So yes, a brutal dictator who has murdered hundreds of thousands and is eager to achieve weapons to kill millions more should be eliminated, the suffering that he inflicts and that ruins our dinner stopped — but once the butcher’s bill arrives, we change our minds. The same people who castigate us for allowing the slaughter in Rwanda and Sudan and a dozen other venues now chide us for insuring that such brutality stops in Iraq. They chafe at the unforeseen consequences, mistakes, and inadvertent death that always and everywhere has accompanied the use of force. How many tens of thousands died unnecessarily in World War II, the “good war,” because of such contingencies? The tragic truth of action is that we have to accept those risks and accept that to achieve a future good we often have to risk a present evil. The only alternative is never to use force, and pacifism is a juvenile ideal refuted on every page of history.

This unreal view of life and suffering and risk is abetted by the mass media, one of whose most important commodities is human misery and emotional drama. Discussions of principle and evidence and long-term goals and their costs and risks are dry and tedious, filled with complexity and uncertainty; they simply don’t play as well as do the simple stories of individual victims and their suffering, personal dramas we all can identify with and respond to on a visceral level. And along with our enjoyment, we can display our culture’s most important virtue: sensitivity to suffering, the sure sign of moral superiority. To talk, as Lincoln did, of the “terrible arithmetic,” the tragic truth that some must die today so that more don’t die tomorrow, is insensitive and callous in the world of Oprah and Dr. Phil.

This obsession with the emotional drama of suffering is particularly dangerous in a democracy that depends on its citizens to make decisions based on the best information and the most coherent understanding of principle that they can muster, a process that the fog of emotion and sentiment compromises. The fact is, as hard as it may sound, the sufferer or the victim isn’t necessarily smarter or even more moral than anybody else. On the contrary, the overwhelming emotion of loss and grief are likely to blind one to the facts and principles upon which public policy and action should be based.

This is precisely the assumption that governs the selection of juries. If a drunk driver is on trial, only incompetence allows on the jury someone who has lost a loved one to a drunk driver. Everyone assumes that such a person will be prejudiced by his personal experience and blinded by emotion, and thus less capable of rationally evaluating the facts and coming to a just decision based on evidence and argument.

Yet when it comes to war, we think just the opposite. Combat veterans are treated as oracles even though a knowledge of the horrors of combat doesn’t necessarily make one an expert on the larger purposes and goals of war. Indeed, the trauma of those experiences can just as likely blind one to those larger issues. Surely the memory of the Great War’s horrors contributed to Europe’s appeasement of Hitler, with the result that it took 50 million dead to stop Nazism rather than one or two million.

As much as we respect and sympathize with Ms. Sheehan’s grief, then, we are under no obligation to respect her opinion about the necessity or justice of this war, or give it any more of a hearing than anybody else’s. In fact, we should suspect that it reflects her understandable grief rather than any superior insight into the reasons for going to war. Those reasons should be debated and discussed through the political process, and they should reflect as much as possible fact and rational argument. Presenting those facts and arguments is the job of a responsible media. Unfortunately, exploiting suffering and indulging their political prejudices are often more important to the media than providing their fellow citizens with the resources needed to make the best decision.

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