Silicon Insider: Learning From Terri Schiavo

If you think the Terri Schiavo case was painful and difficult, just wait until you see what's coming.

I have tried very hard not to get enmeshed in the Schiavo matter. I'm a technology writer, and decided early on to leave this kind of stuff to the political and cultural pundits. Besides, these big cultural stories -- OJ, Scott Peterson, Columbine, Michael Jackson, etc. -- take on a life of their own, such that amidst all of the screaming and the flying accusations, it's almost impossible to ferret out the real truth in the matter [although, ironically, I can say that the "finger in the Wendy's chili" story is real: my kids' godmother was next in line that night, and even saw the finger].

Yet such is the nature of these big tabloid stories that, no matter how much you try, it is almost impossible to escape them -- or to come to some sort of opinion on the matter. For example, without having any real first-hand knowledge of the case, nor any expertise in brain neurology whatsoever, I seem to have come to the contradictory conclusion that Schiavo was not entirely brain dead, that her husband was ghoulish in his pressing this matter forward so relentlessly and that her parents are kindly but delusional about their daughter's real condition.

Is any of this true? I haven't the foggiest idea. If I want to be really paranoid, or at least Humeian, I might even wonder if this story was even real at all, or just an intriguing plot scenario designed by screenwriters as a litmus to our true beliefs. In fact, all of these big sensational stories that regularly capture the nation's imagination seem in fact to be test cases to prepare us for major crises to come, and as synecdoche for our deepest fears for a changing world. That's why, despite our resistance, we find ourselves drawn into the national debate, our emotions growing hot over people we've never met facing medical and legal challenges we don't really understand.

Precursor of Things to Come?

In that respect, these tabloid cases may actually have a salutary purpose: they are early warning systems for what we really fear is coming. Thus, the OJ trial was about the dangerous and growing cult of celebrity in America, however minor the celebrity, though the defense team skillfully managed to turn it into a barometer of the jurors' greatest fear: race. The Scott Peterson case was about the vulnerability of modern motherhood, Columbine was our fear of what our teenagers were doing home alone in front of their computer screens, and Michael Jackson is about celebrity and the lost innocence of modern childhood.

And Terri Schiavo? Of course it was about the pretty young woman in the photographs who morphed into the sad, perhaps empty, shell of a human being staring slack-jawed and empty-eyed at an incomprehensible world. But it was deeper than that. I think it was also about our fear of the mercilessness of technology and our dread of what lies in the near future.

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