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An American fatwa
Media irresponsibility could place Michael Schiavo’s life in danger for many years to come

IF THERE WAS an emblematic moment in the religious right’s crusade against Michael Schiavo, it might be said to have taken place on March 21. It was a Monday, three days after Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube had been removed. And William Hammesfahr, a neurologist who claims to have examined the all-but-brain-dead woman for some 10 hours several years ago, was a guest on Sean Hannity’s radio show.

What Hammesfahr had to say was — quite literally — incredible. He told Hannity that Terri Schiavo was "completely conscious." That she "tries to communicate." That she was "a very, very, very aware, alive, vibrant individual trapped in a body that’s preventing her from communicating properly." Hammesfahr wouldn’t answer Hannity’s question as to whether he believed Michael Schiavo was "trying to murder" his wife, explaining that he didn’t want to get sued. But he did have this to say when asked whether Terri could recover from the state in which she had lain for some 15 years: "I would expect with treatment — proper medical treatment — I would expect her to be able to talk again at some point, and to return to her family and start to live her life again, be able to go out, see movies, enjoy life."

It was an extraordinary declaration. Just in case you missed it, Hammesfahr repeated it that night on Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes, and took his traveling media show to MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, as well as to other outlets. Thus did the media help to advance the monstrous notion that Terri Schiavo is a fully sentient woman suffering only from a serious disability, a lack of treatment, and a husband and judicial system who’d rather see her dead than rehabilitated.

Because of Hammesfahr, Hannity, and others like them, Michael Schiavo has reportedly received numerous death threats. Florida state judge George Greer, who has presided over this fiasco for many years now, is under armed guard. Last Friday a North Carolina man named Richard Alan Meywes was arrested and charged with sending out an e-mail promising a $250,000 reward for the murder of Michael Schiavo, and another $50,000 for bumping off Judge Greer. According to reports, FBI affidavits revealed that the e-mail, supposedly written on behalf of an unidentified multimillionaire, said in part: "It is my understanding that whoever eliminates Michael Schiavo from the planet while inflicting as much pain and suffering that he can bear stands to be paid this reward in cash."

Now, William Hammesfahr may or may not be sincere, but he is almost certainly wrong in his assessment of Terri Schiavo. Yet by spouting his views before every television camera and microphone that popped up, he helped contribute to an atmosphere of hysteria that placed the lives of Michael Schiavo and George Greer in danger.

How untrustworthy is Hammesfahr? Let’s start with his oft-repeated boast that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1999, a factoid that wowed Hannity and Scarborough. Last week Bob Somerby, on his Daily Howler Web site, noted that the St. Petersburg Times had reported in 2002 that Hammesfahr’s nomination consisted of nothing more than his having once persuaded his congressman to write a letter to the Nobel committee. This is not much different from buying a subscription to National Geographic and then putting on your résumé that you’re a member of the National Geographic Society. More to the point, Somerby recounted, the St. Pete Times reported the following year that Greer had dismissed Hammesfahr in court as a "self-promoter" who could not remotely support his claim that Terri Schiavo had been responsive when he examined her, and who had not produced any documentation to support his contention that his treatments had helped other severely brain-damaged patients. Somehow Hannity and Scarborough missed that.

But that’s the way it’s gone in far too much of the media over the past several weeks. In what could almost be described as a parody of objectivity, the media — and especially cable news and talk radio — have balanced truth with falsehood, creating the impression that there is a genuine dispute over Terri Schiavo’s condition. In so doing, the media have allowed the religious right to declare a virtual fatwa against Michael Schiavo, transforming him into our Salman Rushdie — that is, into a man who, by violating fundamentalist religious sensibilities, may never be able to travel freely or live safely again.

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Issue Date: April 1 - 7, 2005
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