The sultans of certainty


WASHINGTON - "The only certainty is that nothing is certain," said the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder.

With that kind of attitude, he never could have made it in today's media world. As the Terri Schiavo case illustrates, today's top commentators tend to be unalterably certain, even in the face of scientific evidence.

In the view of certain sultans of certainty, for example, anyone who did not want to intrude in the family dispute over Mrs. Schiavo's feeding tube was some kind of a natural-born killer.

Rush Limbaugh, radio host, March 23: "A question for those of you who are our friends on the left. Just answer it honestly to yourself: How many of you want Terri Schiavo to die simply because some Christian conservatives want her to live?"

Ann Coulter, author, columnist, March 24: "As important as it was to enforce the constitutional right to desegregated schools, isn't it also important to enforce Terri Schiavo's right to due process before she is killed by starvation?"

Bill O'Reilly, Fox News Channel host, on his radio program, March 24: "No. 1, there are a lot of Americans who simply want the woman to die. They just want her to die for a number of different reasons."

Yes, it was not enough for the doubt-free crowd to put forth their position; they also had to smear the defenders of Mrs. Schiavo's husband, Michael, by calling them "murderers."

But the media pundits were a sideshow compared with the over-the-top comments of some people with real power, such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.

"Right now, murder is being committed against a defenseless American citizen in Florida," Mr. DeLay said March 18.

In fact, Mrs. Schiavo's life already had slipped away in terms of life as most people think of it, according to an autopsy report. Her brain weighed about half the normal weight of a human brain, she was incapable of seeing and the damage was irreversible, said the medical examiner's report. Mrs. Schiavo died March 31, 13 days after the courts allowed her husband to remove her feeding tube.

No amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated her massive brain loss, the report said. As University of Maryland Medical Center neurosurgeon Howard Eisenberg told a reporter, "She didn't exist as Terri Schiavo anymore."

That left Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee in an awkward situation. Although he's a cardiologist, Mr. Frist questioned Mrs. Schiavo's diagnosis, "based on a review of the video footage," he said during debate in March over emergency legislation to have her feeding tube reinserted. "And that footage, to me, depicted something very different than persistent vegetative state."

Contrary to Mr. Frist's long-distance diagnosis, the medical examiner said the autopsy results were consistent, indeed, with a persistent vegetative state, a diagnosis that Michael Schiavo used in court arguments to argue that his wife would not want to be kept alive in her condition.

Further, Mrs. Schiavo's smiles and eye movements were automatic responses and not evidence of consciousness, the report said.

I hate to gloat, but the sultans of certainty in this case have asked for it.

Count among them our Washington politicians who insisted on intruding resolutely into a family dispute over whether the courts were right to allow Mr. Schiavo to make end-of-life decisions on behalf of his wife. Even President Bush interrupted his vacation to rush back to Washington and sign the bill that unsuccessfully tried to block a court decision. These politicians and pundits owe the nation an apology, but I won't hold my breath waiting for it.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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