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Deathwatch Again

Death is a highly personal event. There are few other moments in life when one would want greater privacy. We've just seen with Terry Schiavo a protracted media-circus deathwatch so wrapped up in acrimony that even her passing failed to bring together the raging parties. The intensity of the emotions made it perfect for cable TV screamers. Perhaps there is no middle ground in some conflicts; to hear the two sides speak, it's either a merciful death or a killing. Either's she's there (in spirit), or she's not there (because she disappeared 15 years ago). To one side her death reflects her wishes, to the other it's "heartless cruelty." Intelligence and compassion require that we ponder contradictory values, and concede that our opponent might not be a religious zealot or the "devil incarnate" (as one blogger called Michael Schiavo). That's never going to happen in the Schiavo case, apparently. President Bush, Tom Delay et al have injected themselves into this debate as the Democrats for the most part have run for the hills, but if death is personal it surely shouldn't be federalized.

Now today we have more bulletins from Vatican City, and though the death of a Pope, particularly this globe-trotting, dynamic pontif, is obviously a huge story, I have to feel that his privacy is being invaded with all the details of his hour by hour medical treatment. It's naive, maybe, to think that it could ever be otherwise in a 24-hour media environment, but speaking as a news consumer I'm not sure I need to know if he's going to have another tube or catheter inserted at this point. This is an excellent time to reflect on his life, not on the precise details of his death. The Pope is the most public of men, but even he has a right to privacy.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 1, 2005; 7:42 AM ET
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