It won't end with the autopsy.
The postmortem examination of Terri Schiavo provided medical facts that resolve any doubt about the condition the brain-damaged woman was in before her feeding tube was removed last March. Schiavo's brain was half the normal size. She was blind. No treatment could have brought improvement.
For most of us, the facts are enough to end discussion of the case that seized the television screens and the Congress during the Easter season. But it will not end. Because the Schiavo imbroglio was never about the facts. It was merely one symptom of the edifice of distortion that has taken over our public life.
It may have been about faith or about the bitterness Schiavo's parents feel toward their son-in-law Michael. It may have been about the political ambitions of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush - he's now demanded that a prosecutor investigate the circumstances of Schiavo's collapse in 1990 - or about the political goals of other Republican lawmakers, including the president.
"Would I do it over again? Yes, I would do it over again," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters who pressed him about his own conduct during the Schiavo episode. Frist, a heart surgeon, took to the Senate floor and declared that the famous videotape of Schiavo did not seem to show someone in a persistent vegetative state and, "she certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."
And yes, Frist says proudly, he would do it again. We must expect that something akin to the Schiavo spectacle will recur because of the world in which we now live.
It is a world in which objective fact no longer guides how we are governed. A world in which distortions and untruths are repeated over and over again until just enough Americans believe them to provide a veneer of approval for the outlandish.
The subversion of science by the Bush administration is well known. Its officials have changed health Web sites, such as the one for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to distort information on the effectiveness of condoms in preventing AIDS and to claim a nonexistent link between breast cancer and abortion. They have blocked approval of emergency contraception - taken after sex and before anyone has an inkling of whether fertilization has occurred - because they consider the pill to cause abortion.
Reproductive health isn't the only casualty. Everyone's health is. Distorted claims and suppression of facts also have marked the administration's approach to global warming; to mercury pollution and air pollution; to workplace safety and lead poisoning.
Don't care about science? Then war is another example.
There were false claims that Saddam Hussein held massive stockpiles of unconventional weapons. They continued after international inspectors had asserted that Iraq had no active nuclear weapons program. The drumbeat went on after inspectors led by the UN's Hans Blix were readmitted to Iraq and kept turning up nothing.
There is the phantom link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. It has been disproved by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies, as well as the 9/11 commission. Yet President Bush continues to weave a connection. "We went to war because we were attacked," the president declared in his radio address on Saturday. Noting that "some" disagreed with his decision to remove Hussein, the president went on to say that "terrorists have now made Iraq a central front in the war on terror."
The circularity is perfect. With the breakdown of order in Iraq having created a haven for terrorists, and with the invasion by a Western superpower providing the ideological impetus for jihadists, the president now declares Iraq to be a "central front in the war on terror." But he'd also claimed it was a terrorist threat before we invaded.
What becomes of a nation that allows itself to be guided by fiction and not fact? Do our leaders believe their own rhetoric? Are they so driven by ambition or, for Democrats, cowed in their opposition, that they're dangerously deluded?
Most lawmakers do not inhabit some imaginary universe where black is white. They know reality from fantasy. The sorry case of Terri Schiavo, and so much else that has transpired these past few years, should send them a message they must heed if we are ever to get back on track: Get a grip.
© 2005 Newsday, Inc.