Friday, August 12, 2005


(Note: this piece was originally written in late 2004, but in light of the Cindy Sheehan media circus and here and here), I thought it was perfectly applicable today)

Let me start by saying that I passionately support the rights of the individual over the rights of the state. When it comes to choosing between them, I almost always will go with "the needs of the one" as opposed to the "needs of the many" (to borrow a theme from Star Trek).

Yet, I am deeply troubled by the press's attitude that our foreign policy as a nation should be held hostage to grief stricken mothers, fathers, family and miscellaneously bereaved individuals.

Anyone's death diminishes me, as the poem says, and death--while something we all must face in time--is always a tragedy when it occurs. The death of a loved one is particularly difficult to handle, and grief is a multilayered and deeply personal journey. Professionally I deal with the emotional after-effects of death and dying all the time. I work closely with people who must grapple with despair and lonliness after their son or daughter, mother or father, husband or wife has died. Some deal with it better than others; and every journey is unique.

I was the Crew Surgeon for the NASA Challenger space mission. It had a profound effect on me because I was personally acquainted with the crew and families of that mission. But, since it was a NASA Shuttle mission, there was an important aspect of the disaster--separate from the personal grief ofthe families; and separate from the outpouring of grief and disbelief by the entire country--and that was the question of how national space policy should change based on what had occurred.

That larger aspect leads to what we in medicine call the "morbidity and mortality" conference or others might call the "Fact-Finding Commission". After the grief; after all the emotion has died down, it is the dispassionate analysis of what went wrong and how do we fix it for the future. (I will not go into how this process actually played out at NASA, where there was tremendous denial that anything was broken and strong resistance to "fixing" anything--but that is another story/post).

I may be a Libertarian, but I am not an anarchist. There are reasons for people to come together into a nation for that common defense and to constuct a government in order to provide for that defense. Our national foreign policy must be made using the same dispassionate analysis of facts and data, combined with an assessment of the "common good". That combined focus must be grounded in a logical understanding of both short and long-term tactics within an overal strategy and an appreciation of the costs (whether in dollars or lives) as well as the potential benefits. Of course there must be debate and discussion of both tactics and strategy, as well as whatexactly and precisely is in our best interest as a group of people united in freedom and democracy.

What we do not need is a public flogging of our elected officials by the bereaved and mourning families of 9/11; or by the histrionic mothers of soldiers who made their own choices to be in the military; by the angry fathers who are deeply distressed that their sons did not politically agree with them and chose to go into danger. Our national policies are far too important to be held hostage by the emotions of any individuals, let alone those who have an emotional axe to grind.

Important lessons can be learned from the 9/11 attacks, which I believe could not have been imagined, let alone predicted by any civilized mind. We can improve intelligence and mobilize resources that might significantly aid us in the event of another another attack; or possibly decrease the probability of another attack. But how does it help us as a nation to succumb to the belief that anyone else but the terrorists and their supporter were the ones responsible?

Crucial decisions and tactical adjustments can be made by a death or deaths in a war; sometimes even the overall strategy can be fine-tuned, or even abandoned if necessary when looked at in the spirit of determining what our national and security interests demand. But none of these actions can or should be made simply because of grief; or anger; or resentment; or fear.

Let's face the truth: that the purpose of maintaining an army/navy/air force is to provide for the common defense. Those individuals who CHOOSE to join the military do so (one hopes) with a full awareness of what their job description entails in war, as well as in peacetime. Their death or injury while performing a dangerous, but crucial job on our behalf, should make all of us at home, safe, desperately grateful that they chose to serve their country in this manner. How does it help us to say that there is nothing worth sacrifice; nothing that is worth fighting for?

I feel a deep compassion for their mothers and fathers; and for their families and friends of those lost in war. The enormity of the sacrifice their loved ones made for us is reflected in the intense grief of those who mourn them. Perhaps for a while, they as individuals will bear a disproportionate amount of the sacrifice that comes with any war. I sincerely hope that all who grieve will come to peace with that reality and be able to go on with their lives. But I do not think their grief should hold us hostage. I do not believe that their grief gives them a better insight into what our country's policies should be (in truth, I think their grief can easily cloud their judgement). I do not believe that they should automatically be given a platform --either individually or as a group--by the media until they have resolved their grief and have constructive and rational proposals to bring to the national debate. Because of their emotional lability, it can be relatively easy for their suffering to become manipulated by unscrupulous individuals who want to use the raw emotion to further their own political or economic agendas.

By all means, let us have a discussion of the issues; the pros and cons; the costs as well as the benefits. But let us not determine our best common interests while watching the emotional and histrionic rantings of those who are in the grip of an unresolved grief reaction.Their emotional suffering does not automatically give them moral or intellectual superiority (except insofar as the MSM sees ALL victims as morally superior--but that is another issue). And, we will not win this war without that superiority.

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