What do we owe Cindy Sheehan? That is the question of the moment, as Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq and now a fervent critic of President Bush, has emerged as the most potent symbol of the nascent but growing antiwar movement. At its most basic level, the answer is simple: As the survivor of a service member killed in combat, Sheehan and her family are entitled to death benefits of up to $500,000. But, of course, the answer is not nearly so simple, and the debt owed to Sheehan is in fact much greater than any monetary figure.
Sheehan, like any person who has lost a loved one in service to our country, certainly deserves our compassion. She also deserves the opportunity to meet with our commander-in-chief (yes, it would be her second meeting, but a president who has time for a two-hour bike ride with Lance Armstrong during a five-week vacation has time to meet again with the mother of a man he sent to war and, ultimately, death). Most important, now that Sheehan has injected herself into the political debate, she deserves our respectful treatment.
That, alas, has not always been forthcoming. Ever since Sheehan’s vigil outside Bush’s vacation home in Crawford, Texas, began drawing press coverage, and her demand that Bush withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq began going out over the wires, she has been subjected to the sort of harsh, brass-knuckles treatment that has been unleashed against seemingly anyone–from John McCain to Richard Clarke to John Kerry–who threatens Bush’s primacy. Conservative bloggers have posted court documents about Sheehan’s pending divorce; the Fox News Channel’s Fred Barnes has called her a “crackpot”; and Rush Limbaugh has declared that her “story is nothing more than forged documents–there’s nothing about it that’s real.”
Sheehan, to be sure, has engaged in some heated and at times offensive rhetoric of her own. She has called Bush “the biggest terrorist in the world” and a “filth-spewer and warmonger,” and she has claimed that the United States is waging nuclear war in Iraq. But, while such words should not necessarily be excused, they should be understood, at least in part, as a product of her grief–a grief that many of her attackers themselves have not experienced. Indeed, one could argue that the Bush supporter who has formulated the most appropriate response to Sheehan is the president himself–who has simply said that he is sorry for her loss, that he respects her right to voice her opinion, and that he respectfully disagrees with that opinion. Of course, it’s much easier for Bush to take the high road when his allies are fighting down in the gutter. Moreover, it’s representative of this president’s intellectual limitations that he can’t deliver that response in person, defending his policies face-to-face.
But, if Bush’s supporters can be faulted for their treatment of Sheehan, so, too, can the president’s critics. Opponents of the war have unquestioningly embraced Sheehan, declaring that, because of her terrible loss, her views are unimpeachable and her moral authority is absolute. This is identity politics masquerading as foreign policy–a phenomenon that, prior to Sheehan’s emergence, played a prominent role in Kerry’s presidential campaign and will likely be a feature of the 2006 midterm elections, now that Democrats are recruiting Iraq war veterans to run as candidates. When this happens, the merits of the argument regrettably become subsumed by the merits of the person making them.
This is not only anti-democratic, it is a dangerous and ultimately dead-end road for liberals to travel. After all, Sheehan is not unique in her personal loss. There are more than 1,800 other families who have suffered a similar bereavement. And a number of these families have views about the war that are diametrically opposed to Sheehan’s. Now that Sheehan has become the face of the antiwar movement, supporters of the war have trotted out the parents of slain soldiers who share their views. Camp Casey, the antiwar village Sheehan has erected in Crawford in tribute to her dead son, has been met with Fort Qualls, a pro-war encampment in Crawford that was established by Gary Qualls in honor of his son Louis, a Marine who was killed in Falluja last fall. A debate about the war that devolves into a debate between grieving parents is no debate at all.
What all of us–and particularly people like Sheehan and Qualls, who have paid a direct price for this war–are owed is an honest assessment of the situation in Iraq and a strategy for the war that is informed by that assessment. That we still lack both is a tragedy as deserving of our attention as Cindy Sheehan’s.