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The Power of the Ordinary


Cindy Sheehan, a grieving mother of 24-year-old son Casey, killed only days after joining his army unit in Iraq, is an ordinary woman with extraordinary bearings.

Two months after the untimely death of her son, in June 2004, she met President Bush, hoping to find comfort and answers to many daunting questions. After a disappointing meeting, she insisted on meeting him again to pose her simple, yet poignant and utterly consequential question: "Why did my son die?

Expectedly, this question has been asked by thousands of grieving American families and in fact millions of Americans, many of whom have finally realized the dishonesty and absurdity of Bush’s aimless war. 54 per cent of the American public, according to an August 7, 2005 nationwide CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll feel that the US administration has ‘made a mistake’ in sending troops to Iraq.

But unlike the disapproving, yet largely hushed, or perhaps overlooked millions, the 48-year-old mother, Sheehan, hauled anguish beyond words and camped near Bush’s Texas ranch. Initially, the White House completely ignored her pleas, simply devising alternative routes so that Bush wouldn’t run into ‘Camp Casey.’ When Sheehan finally forced her story on to the media, Bush took notice, dispatching some of his officials to pacify the devastated mother with yet more empty rhetoric. She refused to leave. Her insistence drew nationwide attention, quickly crossing the line dividing the alternative media from that of the mainstream. Right-wing apologists swiftly inundated the media, desperately trying to control a narrative, so instinctively woven by an ordinary woman so incessant on challenging the meaning, or lack thereof, in her son’s death.

While the clichéd understanding of the media’s role in the US is that it is an open, unhindered and evenly representative forum, the sad, albeit unsurprising truth is that the US mainstream media has always been a one-sided, drum-beating, chest-pounding, war-mongering medium where self-serving politicians and businessmen often come together in sinful matrimony. It has, however, so unfairly, tainted the image of the American people, as irrational minds, blindly ‘marching in support’ behind the president, the troops, American Ideals, and so forth, as if the appalling values that molded the thinking of Bush’s ideologues has also influenced the aspirations of ordinary Americans everywhere.

Nonetheless, the sudden, yet invigorating appearance of Sheehan created a tidal wave that is, not only challenging the utterly deceptive rhetoric of the media’s pro-military intervention pundits, but in fact re-launched the antiwar movement, whose absence left the case for war unchallenged.

But still; while some champions of the anti-war movement are incapable of articulating a decisive and uncompromising agenda on ending the war in Iraq, Sheehan, this ordinary woman with a small tent, a few sandwiches and a cell phone has proven more unshakable than anti-war groups who claim tens of thousands of members. "We’re over there and we need to come home," she told reporters on August 16. She contested the claim that ‘leaving Iraq in chaos’ is a non-option. "We need to let the Iraqi people handle their own business," she said, arguing, according to Salon.com that "the US presence is the source of all violence there." Bush is the one responsible for her son’s death, she said, as for "The person who killed my son, I have no animosity for that person at all."

What makes Sheehan’s story utterly powerful is that it comes from a member of society that has been merely qualified as ‘ordinary’, meaning a person of no bearing on the outcome of things, be it political or otherwise. But she is a woman, a mother and that too is a powerful message of revolutionary proportions. Women have erroneously been regarded as minor players in shaping what social scientists coined the ‘public sphere.’

The modern history of the US, moreover, the West in general, was devised by men, some argued, thus the narrative delineating that history finds it possible to exclude women. Women were only the subject of discussion within a particular role, within politics, religion or media, a supportive role that more or less was designated and narrated by men. Once again, ordinary people, and women in particular, found themselves irrelevant to the whole debate. They simply didn’t matter.

Cindy Sheehan’s strong and uncompromising stand is changing that. Her solitary presence is giving vigor, reuniting and inspiring the anti-war movement (as it has been argued by many before me); but what I find even more important is that she has ascribed a different role to a cast of people that has historically been so marginalized, and unfairly so: ordinary women within ordinary surroundings.

In the strict definition of the term however, I find nothing ‘ordinary’ about Cindy Sheehan. She is not a member of the elite, nor does she aspire to be. She wants to preserve her ordinariness, but has " willingly or not " chosen to redefine that seemingly innocuous designation. But Sheehan is not the only ordinary American standing against the war.

All across America and across the world, millions of people defied the consensus to which such people are expected to subscribe. But in this age of typecast democracy, where only elitism " money, politics and thus power " determine the course, the cries of those millions have gone unanswered. And while the dominant few, along with their willing or brainwashed constituency dictate the cause and the cost of war, only the unimportant, and ordinary people like Cindy Sheehan’s son pay the ultimate price and fall victim. The mother’s challenge to President Bush to send his daughters to fight his ominous war in Iraq was not as extraneous as it may have seemed.

Sheehan will eventually fold her tent and go home despite the unequalled value of every hour she spends in her worthy protest. The drums of war, through the mainstream media and their ever-detached analysts, will go on for a while longer. But the hope is that the power of the ordinary which has been revived in the efforts of Cindy Sheehan will always inspire others like her, for it is the absence of that power that keeps the fate of humanity in the hands of a few, who seem utterly apathetic regarding the fate of ordinary people, of Cindy Sheehan, and of her irreplaceable loss.

RAMZY BAROUD, a veteran Arab American journalist, teaches mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology (Malaysia). He is the author of the forthcoming book, Writings on the Second Palestinian Uprising (Pluto Press, London.)


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