Nothing is more emblematic of American democracy than the idea of one person standing up for his beliefs and in the process becoming the catalyst for a national debate. In the arena of civil rights, Rosa Parks' refusal to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus was such an act. During the Vietnam War, Daniel Ellsberg's decision to give the media the Pentagon Papers detailing the secret history of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was another.
Now Californian Cindy Sheehan's August vigil on a sweltering roadway near President Bush's Crawford ranch has given a human voice and face to the revulsion of the carnage in Iraq. Sheehan, the mother of a 24-year-old Army specialist killed in Iraq last year, wants a face to face meeting with Bush to ask him what mission was worth her son Casey's life.
In a previous meeting a few months after his death, Sheehan says, the president seemed unaware of who her son was, addressed her as "mom" during the encounter and acted almost lighthearted. Now she wants a deadly serious discussion of why America invaded Iraq and how long the bloodshed will continue.
Those are questions on the minds of millions of Americans, who see the list of dead and injured American personnel growing along with the expenditure of billions of U.S. tax dollars, with no end in sight. Polls reflect the growing unease of the country with the president's handling of the war. Approval of the Bush war policy has fallen below 40 percent. As Sheehan questions the war, she is voicing the concerns of a majority of Americans.
In a way, the White House set the stage for Sheehan's vigil by saying Bush's five-week hiatus at the ranch was really a working vacation to allow him to talk to everyday folks about the issues that concern them. The likes of Cindy Sheehan don't come along every day, but she wants to discuss an issue that concerns millions of Americans who want to hear answers that go beyond the familiar "stay the course."
Even Richard Nixon, often described as paranoid about critics, visited antiwar protesters at the Lincoln Memorial in 1970.
Yet Bush has not yet found it in himself to meet a grieving mother or invite her to the ranch to discuss his policies. Thursday Bush told reporters he sympathized with Sheehan but that pulling out of Iraq "would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace." Sheehan responded that the best way to show compassion would be to meet with her and other parents of soldiers killed in action.
Bush previously dispatched his national security adviser and an aide to meet with Sheehan's group, but that only increased the perception that Bush cannot bring himself to face his critics. Until the president addresses the doubts about the conduct of the war that Cindy Sheehan now symbolizes, the voices of the opposition will only grow louder.
2005 Houston Chronicle