Living and dying the American way

There is a gulf between the high value Americans put on life in theory and its cheapness in practice
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The Independent Online

Whatever was going through the mind of Jeff Weise on Monday, as the teenager shot dead nine people in Minnesota, it probably wasn't any of the recent pronouncements of George Bush. Only the day before, the President had taken the almost unprecedented step of cutting short his holiday to "save" a woman's life as it ebbed away in a hospital in Florida, signing a congressional resolution to allow her parents, who have consistently failed in their court battle with her husband, to try their luck with another judge.

Whatever was going through the mind of Jeff Weise on Monday, as the teenager shot dead nine people in Minnesota, it probably wasn't any of the recent pronouncements of George Bush. Only the day before, the President had taken the almost unprecedented step of cutting short his holiday to "save" a woman's life as it ebbed away in a hospital in Florida, signing a congressional resolution to allow her parents, who have consistently failed in their court battle with her husband, to try their luck with another judge.

There is no doubt in the administration's collective mind about Terri Schiavo's right to life - and by extension, the right to life of all decent Americans - even though she has been in a vegetative state for 15 years.

"Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together last night to give Terri Schiavo's parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life," Bush declared after signing the emergency legislation. "This is a complex case with serious issues, but in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life."

So exercised have Mrs Schiavo's supporters become about her plight that four of them, including a running mate of then Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in the 1988 presidential election, were arrested after attempting to enter the Las Pinellas hospice near Tampa where her feeding tube was disconnected by order of a state judge last Friday.

For all these people, politicians and activists alike, the right to life is paramount - a position quite different from the one taken by the President when he was governor of Texas between 1995 and 2000 and repeatedly failed to "err on the side of life" in death penalty cases. Each year, the US comes near the top of the dwindling list of states that continue to use capital punishment, finding itself grouped with flagrant human rights abusers such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

And while it may be fanciful to suggest that the institutionalised violence of the state towards its citizens influenced Weise to open fire on his grandfather, step-grandmother and seven others, there is a perplexing disjunction between the high value Americans place on life in theory and its apparent cheapness in practice.

A version of this thought may have occurred to many people as they observe the rising casualties in the President's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what intrigues me in the wake of Monday's mass murder, the latest in a long series which has even produced its own slang term - "going postal", derived from the number of disgruntled postal workers who have turned guns on their colleagues - is why the very public commitment to a "culture of life", endorsed at the weekend by both houses of Congress, has such little impact on bitter, angry citizens such as Weise.

Perhaps they are influenced by another piece of right-wing rhetoric, which insists on the right of every American citizen to bear arms, regardless of the consequences: more than 30,000 gun-related killings a year.

Since Weise killed himself three days ago, apparently after turning one of his weapons on himself inside the school where he found most of his victims, evidence has emerged to suggest that the teenager, who lived in Red Lake, a Native American reservation in the far north of Minnesota, was a neo-Nazi who signed himself Native Nazi or Todesengel (angel of death) when he used internet chat rooms.

"I guess I've always carried a natural admiration for Hitler and his ideals, and his courage to take on larger nations", he wrote last March. Weise's admiration for Hitler seems to have had its roots in his feelings, as a member of one of America's most disadvantaged minorities, about race. "As a result of cultural dominance and inter-racial mixing", he wrote on another occasion, "there is [sic] barely any full-blooded Natives left."

It is not hard to see why Nazi rhetoric about racial purity might have appealed to a youngster who felt isolated and rejected. Weise's background, with its extreme frustrations and dislocations, is a familiar story of modern life in America - not the folksy, uplifting kind that appeals to the President and his supporters, but considerably more authentic than Bush's fantasy about bringing Mrs Schiavo back to life.

Red Lake is one of the poorest reservations in the region, with unemployment running as high as 65 per cent and more than half the population living below the poverty line. Weise's father killed himself four years ago, his mother is unavoidably absent - in an echo of the Schiavo case, she is confined to a nursing home after suffering brain damage - and the boy himself had recently been excluded from school, apparently because he was suspected of being the author of a threat to "shoot up" the place on Hitler's birthday.

Students who knew Weise describe him as weird and antisocial, exhibiting some of the traits characterised by the psychoanalyst Alice Miller as "the loneliness of the contemptuous". Miller describes disrespect and contempt for others as "the weapon of the weak" which may have catastrophic effects when children become adults (or reach the middle teenage years, in Weise's case). Poor, effectively orphaned, avoided by classmates and sensitive to his status as a member of a racial minority, Weise was hardly in a position to learn that life - his own or anyone else's - had much value.

In Bush's America, where the political class has embarked on a mission to resuscitate the brain-dead, no one seems to have either the will or the power to intervene in the everyday existence of young people whose lives are going horribly awry. Whole sections of American society grow up with guns and violent death, if not the internecine rivalries of gang culture, making the right-to-life debate currently being conducted in Congress and the Florida courts seem like a surreal joke.

I don't think this is an accident. Politicians enjoy occupying the high moral ground and it is easier to emote about the pain of Mrs Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, than to address the disfiguring inequalities of the richest nation on earth - especially when you are personally implicated, as the current President is, in making those inequalities worse.

The Schindlers are not alone in refusing to accept a harsh medical fact, which is that their daughter has in effect been dead for 15 years; there have been cases on this side of the Atlantic in which family members, buoyed by false hope, refused to accept the inevitable. But Bush's public endorsement of a right to life is at best a diversion, at worst a sham, making it all the more shocking that so many members of Congress rushed to support him.

The new law may not "save" Mrs Schiavo, even assuming such a thing were possible, because the Florida district court is no more inclined to fly in the face of medical reality than its state counterpart. More surprisingly, so soon after elections in which a right-wing moral agenda played a significant role, opinion polls show a clear majority in favour of the proposition that the court decision should be respected In the Schiavo case, it may be that ordinary Americans have a more sophisticated grasp of the meaning of slogans such as the "right to life" than their political leaders. Or maybe the President's Superman costume split at the seams last weekend, revealing not Clark Kent but the smirking politician who helped more than 150 prisoners to an early exit from death row.

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