Thursday, March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo: The Locked-in State

by Sherry Eros, MD and Steven Eros

Over 2000 years ago the Athenians condemned and executed the philosopher Socrates and the Romans tortured and murdered Jesus Christ. We tend to dismiss the mindless cruelty and barbarity of these acts, this snuffing-out the lives of two of the greatest benefactors of mankind, as quite understandable, even if lamentable, given the assumption that ancient societies were unfamiliar with the refinements of modern liberal democracy, limited representative government, checks and balances, minority rights and the like. Such travesties of justice could never occur in our modern, highly evolved age--certainly not in America. Cold-blooded court-sanctioned murder of innocents, not to mention the noblest and best of our fellow citizens, is unthinkable here. What happened in ancient Athens and Jerusalem could never be replicated under our system of laws, in our enlightened age, with a Bill of Rights, standards of proof, jury trials and all the other available protections of individual rights. Compassionate Americans would never stand for their government yanking perfectly innocent citizens off the streets, from their workplaces or out of their homes without due process of law. The slow pace of justice coupled with all the statutory and constitutional protections insures that mistakes are almost always avoided or corrected once brought to the public’s attention. With the endless stream of motions and appeals, death penalty cases can easily take more than a decade to resolve. Anyway, Americans would rather see the proverbial “ten guilty men go free, than one innocent man wrongly imprisoned or executed.” The torture to which the benighted Romans subjected Jesus cannot happen here in America. Those who participate in merely moral or intellectual disagreements or protests need not fear persecution; certainly not capital punishment. Why, the state is powerless to even arrest open traitors in our midst, much less exterminate those we believe are miseducating our young. We Americans, we’re modern; we’re open-minded; we’re compassionate; we’re tolerant; we’re pluralistic; and we pride ourselves above all in protecting the powerless and downtrodden. Apart from some individual who in the dark crevices of the justice system is unknowingly framed, or erroneously convicted by corrupt officials, things like that just don’t happen in the full light of public scrutiny. The lumbering machinery of the state and its criminal justice system, its courts, would never permit government-ordered murder right out in the open, right in front of our eyes. Not with the full attention of every member of the House of Representatives, every United States Senator, every judge in every federal court in the land--from the lowest federal district court to the highest court in the land, the United States Supreme Court, with the full knowledge of a governor and even the president of the United States. After all, we have a free and open media eager to scrutinize every capital case, every government injustice, every government overreach.

Well, the case of Terri Schiavo gives the lie to all of it. The state-sanctioned judicial torture-murder of Terri Schiavo serves to remind modern man that little has changed over the last 2400 years plus. The State power quite openly decided that Christ and Socrates were troublemakers who needed to be stopped. Both were fated for State execution from the beginning. The life and death of the philosopher Socrates may not be quite as familiar to every American as Jesus’s. Socrates devoted his life to educating his fellow Athenians to the nature of justice in the conviction that knowledge was the path to justice. But he was put to death by the very system of justice he spent his life trying to improve through his searching style of education that has come to be known as the Socratic method, asking the kinds of questions that make the self-satisfied uneasy. Socrates was a man who found the highest value reflected in the soul of every human being he met. He engaged and examined each person intellectually and morally, challenging those with whom he agreed no less than those who disagreed with him. He was a man who dared to stare directly at the glaring light of the truth without averting his eyes. If we stare too long directly at the light of the sun, it blinds us permanently. Socrates contrasted the sunlight that blinds the physical eyes with the healing mindlight of pure intellection--demonstrating that the longer we stare at the light of pure truth, the more our soul’s vision is healed. Even when threatened with death, Socrates refused to desist from exhorting his fellow citizens to be guided by the pure light of divine knowledge of justice, ever encouraging them to avoid being tricked by the dazzling things of this world whose brightness is merely reflective, transitory and illusory. For living his life in unstinting pursuit of truth and reality, and for encouraging his fellow citizens to do the same, he was sentenced by his Athenian citizen-judges to death on the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens, and executed after a short term in prison. Caring little for life in this world, and welcoming the death that would bring him everlasting life without the burden of the body encasing his soul, Socrates refused to abandon his search for God and Truth. His plea to the judges was not to spare his life for his own benefit--for by then he was over 70 years old and would soon die anyway even if pardoned--but rather that the state should refrain from this grievous injustice for its own sake, and that of his individual accusers. Socrates was convinced that to do evil is infinitely worse than to suffer evil at the hands of another and that, just as illness destroys the body, so great injustice destroys the soul of the unjust individual and country. His plea went unheeded by his enemies and his State, and we know that his countrymen suffered grievously after his death. We may only imagine the judgment that awaited those who falsely accused him, adjudged him guilty, and executed him. As we all know, Socrates’ religious counterpart, Jesus Christ, as pure a man as ever lived, was betrayed and tortured unmercifully before being crucified, laughingly reviled for his willingness to purchase the lives of others with his own torture and death. Thousands of those who remained true to his ideals and teachings have been similarly reviled, tormented and murdered merely for living in Jesus Christ’s name.

The case of Terri Schiavo is not without parallels to the lives of these men, as startling as that claim may seem. Of course, Terri never taught a course or delivered a sermon, never evinced expansiveness of intellect or professed deep spiritual ideas. Unlike Jesus and Socrates, Terri did not intentionally provoke her fellow men into pursuing certain spiritual paths or intellectual questions. But are those the only paths to serving as a great educator of mankind?

If nothing else, Terri Schiavo certainly shares with Socrates and Jesus the quality of innocence. It is ironic that in her debilitated state, brain damaged and unable to report either what happened to her 15 years ago or her present thoughts and wishes, she has become one of mankind’s leading moral provocateurs. -- What is life? What constitutes a fulfilled life? Who should make judgments on the continuation of life? Under what circumstances should the life of the physically or mentally disabled be prolonged? Does illness or injury necessarily diminish the will to live? -- Terri causes us to think about these essential questions at depths and in ways not encountered in recent times. What makes her so compelling is the fact that she is the embodiment of the most difficult and complex problems we face today. She has challenged our assumptions about our selves, our souls, our lives, our moral principles and even our system of government more fundamentally than any human being in decades, even centuries.

Unlike Christ or Socrates, Terri Schiavo was said to have no mind with which to mount her own defense. In this postmodern age in which we are entranced with the marvels of technological wizardry, and in which we seem to worship the body more and more, it is stunning that the greatest human lessons about human existence are being learned from someone who, while she lived, was diagnosed as being Persistent Vegetative State, said to suffer from a brain that had liquified (in the immortal words of The New York Times and The Washington Post and many leading physicians) with nothing left that mentally resembled human life.

Unlike Christ or Socrates, Terri Schiavo was reported to have no voice. While the former suffered so harshly for eloquently giving voice to their provocative ideas, she suffered precisely for being unable to verbalize anything at all. But this lent her long-anticipated (and in some quarters, hoped-for) death a drama no less compelling than theirs. The state in her case decided to execute (and an execution it was) a woman who suffered an attack that rendered her seemingly defenseless and voiceless for the last 15 years. Yet her vulnerable humanity will continue to scream louder than any voice for the truth and justice and humanity of which she was deprived by the cruelty and pitilessness of an unhearing world.

Unlike Christ or Socrates, Terri Schiavo was not afforded a trial in which she could participate or even be represented by her own lawyer. Oh, yes, there were the appeals and more appeals, but Terri was not there, could not speak, could not testify. Her husband, the only one present when she suffered the attack that deprived her lungs of oxygen, damaged her brain and allegedly left her mindless and voiceless, controlled the legal proceedings. The legal maneuvers and ritualistic denials of appeals had an air of unreality and doom. All of her decisions were being made by an estranged spouse with suspect motives under the mantle of judicial legitimacy. Doctors and lawyers and judges were engaged to decide her fate, but blinded themselves to the facts. The mockery of justice and the indignity attending the deaths of Jesus Christ and Socrates, the hopelessness and defenselessness of these men in the face of calculated and remorseless State murder, has nothing over the case of Terri Schiavo.

For those who know of her suffering and stand in her shadow unable to help, this has been an unbearable sentence of death.

Unlike Christ and Socrates, Terri Schiavo was not marched off to the site of her execution. The movie sensation last year was “The Passion of the Christ,” a film created to tell the story of the torture and murder of Jesus Christ. Scenes of flogging and being refused water on the via Dolorosa were vividly brought to life as concrete examples of unbearable, unimaginable suffering. Terri Schiavo was unable to march to her fate, unable to bear any cross. But can one imagine more suffering than the case of a woman, a living breathing human being, who was intentionally deprived of food and water for weeks while America’s courts committed slow motion murder of an utterly innocent human being right in front of our eyes?

During the ordeal, many supporters of Terri Schiavo wondered, Why isn't someone in power doing something? Why doesn’t the governor issue an executive order, a pardon, a reprieve, send in the National Guard if necessary? None of that was possible, or so we were told.

A last ditch effort was organized by those loyal to Socrates while he sat, a man condemned, awaiting the execution of a death penalty his friends found unthinkable. Rejecting the plan of escape hatched by his loyal old friend Crito, Socrates decided to accept the death sentence handed-down at his trial, consuming the poison hemlock drink; submitting despite the monstrous injustice of an innocent and great man being put to death. At trial, Socrates had given a detailed and highly complex explanation for his moral choice to accept his death sentence, comprising his commitment to the law, his loyalty to Athens, his attachment to his Athenian students, the unseemliness of an old man on-the-run in a foreign country, and above all his longstanding conviction that there is a higher reality and an afterlife for which he yearned desperately. His defense at trial was highly spirited and aggressive, motivated not by a desire to extend his own temporal existence but to prevent an injustice for which his vicious Athenian accusers would suffer eternally.

Unlike Socrates, Terri Schiavo cannot mount any defense in words but she has supporters as well. Why do they passively accept the court order to remove the feeding tube that will culminate in the monstrous and completely avoidable death of an innocent woman? They battled furiously in the courts to preserve her life, ultimately failing. If not verbally, has Terri Schiavo been speaking to us in some other way? Perhaps she is silently teaching the same lesson given by Jesus and Socrates by compelling us to contemplate the fact that laws are only man-made and if life is to have meaning and value there must be something that transcends life, from which all of life’s meaning and value are derived.

To a corrupt nation, Terri Schiavo is a living, breathing, thinking, willing, loving rebuke and provocation. She exposes all that is worst in us, the lawlessness, crassness, hard-heartedness, and viciousness that we see almost everywhere around us. In her silence she elegantly refutes the shameless fraud of the bioethics experts, the callousness of the Death Doctors and the Right-to-Die enthusiasts, the tyranny of an unchecked judiciary, the utter depravity of the secular humanists. In her debilitated state, nearly squeezed dry of life, she fills the world with her voiceless eloquence.

One last observation now that she has died. Due to the pall of unreality enveloping these events, those actively witnessing Terri Schiavo’s struggle cannot but feel a deep unease and conflictedness, sensing that on the one hand the world ought to have come to a dead stop until this immense evil was undone, and feeling on the other hand that her progression toward death was inexorable--that the forces of death were not about to halt for even a second, and we are utterly powerless to intervene. This state of unsettledness reveals to us that we, not Terri Schiavo, are the ones in a “locked-in” state, with minds and wills imprisoned in paralyzed bodies, powerless to find the right words and actions to effectively intervene or cry for help, unable to prevent the monstrous torture-murder occurring right in front of our eyes.

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