'They made us cry'

Young Terri SchavioUSA Today's "Lives of indelible impact" is one of the stranger lists I've seen for some time. The concept is not new, as Beliefnet has published its "Most Inspiring Person of the Year" feature for several years now. Within context, the list makes sense: To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the newspaper is publishing 25 lists of 25 items each. "Lives of indelible impact" is list No. 10, which makes me want to see what else the paper's editors will enumerate. The first nine lists were of trends, quotes, books, lucrative stocks, NFL draft moments, Internet breakthroughs, public meltdowns (Jimmy Swaggart's was tops), TV moments and inventions.

What's strange about this list is that it finds inspiration in several victims of circumstance. "They blazed trails. They showed courage," the introduction reads. So far, so good. Then this: "They made us cry."

Consider the paper's entry on Terry Schiavo:

In 1990 at 26, she mysteriously collapsed and suffered brain damage. Eventually, her husband wanted her feeding tube removed to let her die. Her parents argued she was conscious and gave TV media film of her seeming to smile. They battled in court and Congress. Her husband prevailed; she died after the tube was removed in 2005. Her case prompted greater use of living wills.

Yes, living wills! Never mind that many pro-lifers saw Schiavo's death as an outrageous state-sanctioned murder, while many others saw the legal wrangling preceding her death as an outrageous intrusion of the state into a family matter. The ABC After-School Special moment in it all was the importance of drafting a living will. What attorney's breast would not be inflamed with professional pride?

Consider as well these victims of random suffering, who either died quickly or were too young to do anything about their situation.

The astronauts on the Challenger:

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff in 1986 as millions of horrified TV viewers watched. All seven crewmembers died, including Christa McAuliffe, an eager junior high school teacher who was scheduled to teach two lessons from space.

Megan Kanka and Jessica Lunsford:

Their deaths frightened us into action. The girls, ages 7 and 9, respectively, were raped and murdered, Megan in 1994 and Jessica in 2005, each by a convicted sex offender. To protect other children, states and Congress passed laws that require sex offenders to register their addresses.

Jessica McClure:

Her ordeal captivated a nation. She was 18 months old when she fell into a well in Midland, Texas, in 1987. Rescuers worked 58 hours to free her from an 8-inch-wide pipe. McClure, 21, married last year and had a baby girl. "She's just a normal person with a famous name," says her high school principal, Scott Knippa.

"Baby M":

She is the baby who first illuminated the thorny issues of surrogate parenting. Melissa Stern, her real name, is the biological child of William Stern and Mary Beth Whitehead, the surrogate hired to carry her. Once she was born, a tearful Whitehead refused to give her up. A court awarded Stern custody. Melissa is a junior at George Washington University in Washington.

Elian Gonzalez:

He was 5 when the small boat carrying him and 13 others escaping Cuba sank in 1999, killing his mother. He survived on an inner tube and was taken in by relatives in Miami. His father in Cuba wanted him back, and Attorney General Janet Reno ordered his return. When the relatives balked, armed federal agents stormed their house and found Elian hiding in the closet. He lives with his father.

Again, so long as the corpses or the abused children embodied a cause, they led lives of "indelible impact."

USA Today makes several choices that only a grinch would reject, including the heroes of 9/11, Nelson Mandela, Lance Armstrong, Ryan White, the "Man at Tiananmen Square" (the one who faced down a tank, not the many who died there) and Arthur Ashe.

When praising an occasional believer, the paper airbrushes away features that made the believer compelling. The piece praises Pope John Paul II for asking forgiveness for the church's past sins but ignores his full-throated orthodoxy (think of his celebrating Mass in Poland and in Nicaragua). It praises Mother Teresa for her decades of tending to the sick and dying but does not mention her frequent pro-life remarks. It mentions Muhammad Ali but omits the reason for his adopted name: his conversion to the Nation of Islam.

In the pages of USA Today, it does not matter if these people lived heroically or were murdered or were abducted at gunpoint: They all look like Hummel figurines.

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