Shaming the Shameless

Some two and a half millennia before Cindy Sheehan, another woman, also having lost a child, dogged another renowned figure with a persistent question.

Unlike The Benighted One, however, The Enlightened One did not hide from the woman, nor did he send out his minions to fob her off. And he certainly did not sic his curs on her. Instead, he gave her a patient and compassionate hearing.

The woman asked the Buddha an equally simple question, “If you are a true Man of God, can you not bring my dead child back to life?

The Buddha said he could. “All I need is a handful of rice to revive your child…But “, he added, “it must be from a household which has never had a death”.

Knocking on door after door in search of a deathless family, the woman soon realized the futility of her quest, and gradually understood the deeper lesson: the universality and naturalness of death.

It is an answer, unfortunately, that George W. Bush cannot give Cindy Sheehan. His war is a narrow one, fought by invisible people to test the geostrategic theories of the powerful. It is little different from the movie, “Trading Places”, where two Wall Street nabobs play havoc with the lives of two unknowing individuals, all to settle a one-dollar wager.

No country’s war has every able-bodied male fighting. But at least the war effort informs the daily life of the nation. People are forced to economize, goods are rationed, people learn to forgo luxuries.

Look around and ask yourself if this is what you see. Is this war even touching the public? As often as not, the lead story in the national newspapers is not the war. It does not dominate discussion in the Senate or the House. Nor does it figure in our everyday conversation. What does this show?  And what does it say about us when fellow-citizens are getting maimed and killed and this has no impact on our lives?

When the Iraq war was only being talked about (what a blessed time that seems now), Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) proposed reinstituting the draft. He was shushed by the Democratic Party which, reading the tea leaves as usual, was petrified that mentioning “Draft” (unless in juxtaposition with “Beer”) would lose it a constituency or two in the polls.

But the draft is the ladle with which the pot is stirred, so that everyone has a serious stake in whether to go to war, and the decision is not left to boy Presidents in search of belated glory and senators afraid of being caught on the wrong side of the political mood, but made with open eyes by real people facing the real prospect of real tragedy.

Cindy Sheehan’s story shames me. It has shamed many others into driving to Crawford to stand with her. My Chinese friends tell me that the Chinese name for America translates to “Beautiful Country”. But as ‘Peking’ was changed to ‘Beijing’ and ‘Chou’ to ‘Zhou’, I wonder if they have now changed America’s name to “Shameless Country”. The way we are borrowing from them, it would be no surprise if this is how they privately referred to us.

Whatever our new Chinese name, we are now a country bereft of shame. I am not talking alone about moral lepers like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly, or Bill Bennett, in whose place any honorable person would have long slunk back into private life. If they smear Cindy Sheehan, that likely proves she is doing something right.

But it takes particular brazenness for a Joe Biden to say he has ‘disagreements’ with Cindy Sheehan. This from a paragon of sober judgement who not only voted for the Iraq Resolution, but, two years on, could say to Alberto Gonzales, “You’re the Real Deal, I like you”.

Cindy Sheehan may not be a foreign policy maven like you, Senator Joe, but unlike you, she is not responsible for a single death, or the spending of one dime of the taxpayer’s money in a war of choice. People like you and your fellow Senator Joe — Lieberman — on the other hand, have led us to 1843 American dead, thousands crippled, dozens of suicides, and a 300 billion dollar fiasco. (even leaving aside the moral burden of Iraqis killed, maimed, and uprooted, for the moment). As you sniff the air for your prospects in the next presidential election, have you had the decency to apologize for your misjudgement, which has bankrupted the country both economically and morally? And is your quest one reason why an orator of your abilities has such great difficulty saying ‘im-peach-ment’? Or does seeking the presidency mean one has to abjure words of two or more syllables?

As someone once asked yet another Senator Joe, “Have you no shame?”

One of Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest successes was in making urban India  grow a conscience, and feel ashamed of its complicity in enabling British rule and the pauperization of rural India. He only articulated what most Indians knew in their hearts. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on that bus, she too was shaming thousands of others who felt the same way but were unable to bring themselves to act. Cindy Sheehan, I feel, is in the s(h)ame tradition.

Many of us may claim to be “against” the war. But where is the deed to match the word? What did we do to prevent/resist/protest the war? An opinion expressed to a colleague or an argument at a dinner party counts for little. Concrete action, even if small, means a lot.

Here’s a practical suggestion. Tonight (Aug 17) is a candlelight vigil all across America in support of Cindy Sheehan. You can host or join one near you by going to Cindy Vigils.

We are living through momentous times. One day in the future, young people will ask us, “Where were you when Bush was butchering the country?” For Cindy Sheehan the answer should be easy. She has already given to her country more than most could even imagine. And after her huge loss, instead of following the familiar Oprah-Chopra route of cashing in on sensation, she has, putting her own self at risk, taken on the project of salvaging her country’s soul.

The least we could do is to draw inspiration from her, and begin taking tiny steps toward the long overdue task of salvaging our own.

At any rate, one had better not have to mumble to one’s grandchildren, “I had other priorities.” Apart from the instant fall in esteem such an answer would cause, there’s another problem too…

Dick Cheney owns the copyright on that line.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at His blog is at


















/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at