Cindy Sheehan's Sinister Piffle
What's wrong with her Crawford protest.
Here is an unambivalent statement: "The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute."
And, now, here's another:
Am I emotional? Yes, my first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel. Am I stupid? No, I know full well that my son, my family, this nation and this world were betrayed by George Bush who was influenced by the neo-con PNAC agendas after 9/11. We were told that we were attacked on 9/11 because the terrorists hate our freedoms and democracy … not for the real reason, because the Arab Muslims who attacked us hate our middle-eastern foreign policy.
The first statement comes from Maureen Dowd, in her New York Times column of Aug. 10. The second statement comes from Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq last year. It was sent to the editors of ABC's Nightline on March 15. In her article, Dowd was arguing that Sheehan's moral authority was absolute.
I am at a complete loss to see how these two positions can be made compatible. Sheehan has obviously taken a short course in the Michael Moore/Ramsey Clark school of Iraq analysis and has not succeeded in making it one atom more elegant or persuasive. I dare say that her "moral authority" to do this is indeed absolute, if we agree for a moment on the weird idea that moral authority is required to adopt overtly political positions, but then so is my "moral" right to say that she is spouting sinister piffle. Suppose I had lost a child in this war. Would any of my critics say that this gave me any extra authority? I certainly would not ask or expect them to do so. Why, then, should anyone grant them such a privilege?
Sheehan has met the president before and has favored us with two accounts of the meeting, one fairly warm and the other distinctly cold. I have no means of knowing which mood reflected her real state of mind, but she now thinks she is owed another session with him, presumably in order to tell him what she asserted to the Nightline team. In pursuit of this, she has set up camp near Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and announced that she will not leave until she gets some more face-time with our chief executive. This qualifies her to be described by Dowd as "a 48-year-old Californian with a knack for P.R." Well, I think I have to concede that if Dowd says you have a knack for PR, you have acquired one even if you didn't have one before. (I am not entirely certain, for example, that the above letter to ABC News would count as a delicate illustration of the said "knack.")
The president has compromised by sending his national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, down that Crawford road to meet the PR-knackish Cindy. Not good enough, exclaims Dowd. Hadley was pro-war and has even been described as a neocon! Clearly, then, the Sheehan demand is liable to expand the more it is met. President Bush must either find a senior staff member who opposes the war and then send him or her down the track to see if that will do. Or else he must, like the Emperor Henry of old, stage his own Canossa and attend on her himself, abject apologies at the ready. After all, we mustn't forget that we are dealing—as was that emperor in his dispute with Pope Gregory—with "an absolute moral authority."
What dreary sentimental nonsense this all is, and how much space has been wasted on it. Most irritating is the snide idea that the president is "on vacation" and thus idly ignoring his suffering subjects, when the truth is that the members of the media—not known for their immunity to the charm of Martha's Vineyard or Cape Cod in the month of August—are themselves lazing away the season with a soft-centered nonstory that practically, as we like to say in the trade, "writes itself." Anyway, Sheehan now says that if need be she will "follow" the president "to Washington," so I don't think the holiday sneer has much life left in it.
There are, in fact, some principles involved here. Any citizen has the right to petition the president for redress of grievance, or for that matter to insult him to his face. But the potential number of such people is very large, and you don't have the right to cut in line by having so much free time that you can set up camp near his drive. Then there is the question of civilian control over the military, which is an authority that one could indeed say should be absolute. The military and its relatives have no extra claim on the chief executive's ear. Indeed, it might be said that they have less claim than the rest of us, since they have voluntarily sworn an oath to obey and carry out orders. Most presidents in time of war have made an exception in the case of the bereaved—Lincoln's letter to the mother of two dead Union soldiers (at the time, it was thought that she had lost five sons) is a famous instance—but the job there is one of comfort and reassurance, and this has already been discharged in the Sheehan case. If that stricken mother had been given an audience and had risen up to say that Lincoln had broken his past election pledges and sought a wider and more violent war with the Confederacy, his aides would have been quite right to show her the door and to tell her that she was out of order.
Finally, I think one must deny to anyone the right to ventriloquize the dead. Casey Sheehan joined up as a responsible adult volunteer. Are we so sure that he would have wanted to see his mother acquiring "a knack for P.R." and announcing that he was killed in a war for a Jewish cabal? (a claim that has brought David Duke flying to Ms. Sheehan's side.) This is just as objectionable, on logical as well as moral grounds, as the old pro-war argument that the dead "must not have died in vain." I distrust anyone who claims to speak for the fallen, and I distrust even more the hysterical noncombatants who exploit the grief of those who have to bury them.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Cindy Sheehan by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.