Schiavo and the SAT

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(HOST) What do the Terry Schiavo case and the SAT have in common? They answer a crucial question about how decisions are made in our society, says commentator Allen Gilbert.

(GILBERT) Congress stayed up all night last month debating the Terry Schiavo case. President Bush even hastily returned to Washington to sign legislation in the matter. You can argue the merits of end-of-life support and death with dignity. These issues are proving to be a minefield of conflicting opinions in our society.

Similarly, the actions by the Congress and the President are also proving to be a minefield. Republicans used their overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate to circumvent standard legal procedures. It was an unusual move.

What does this have to do with the SAT? A few Saturdays before Congress intervened in the Schiavo case, college-bound students took the “new” SAT. For the first time ever, the high-stakes test included an essay. The topic was “whether majority rule is a fair way to govern….”

This was something of a trick question, for there is no good answer if you try to respond “yes” or “no.” Sure, we should pass legislation by majority vote. But the majority doesn’t have the right to take away constitutional freedoms. It can’t decide by majority vote, for example, to squelch freedom of the press.

Would kids think this through? Would they consider that it was OK, in a sense, to argue with the question that was given them? I hope so, but I’m doubtful. We live in a time when kids see the President assert his authority and see Congress pass laws that avoid basic procedures and protections. At the core of this attitude is a sense that we’re living during an unusual time. The fear and anger of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 continue to haunt us.

Democracies face their stiffest challenges during times of crisis. Individual rights were trampled during the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln said that people could be jailed without being charged with a crime. The Palmer raids of the World War I era targeted labor organizers and war resisters. During World War II, Japanese- Americans were herded into internment camps. And during the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunt for Communists resulted in discriminatory black lists.

Which kids would have been likely to see through the SAT question? Those lucky enough to have just finished Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm. They’d know that majority rule may seem appealing, but it has serious pitfalls. They’d know that a democracy that respects all citizens must be based on a constitution that guarantees rights – even when the majority wants to take them away.

The other lucky kids would be the ones who had just finished reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Nearly 200 years ago, this insightful French political analyst warned about the “tyranny of the majority.” De Tocqueville feared that a majority “lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.” And he correctly noted that one antidote to the tyranny of the majority is an independent judiciary, which is exactly the antidote applied in the Schiavo case.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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