Ever eager for attention, Representative Peter King (R., New York) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D., New York) wasted no time this weekend calling for the death penalty for suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, even though as of Monday morning Tsarnaev has yet to be charged with anything, much less convicted, and Massachusetts lacks the death penalty. But that could not stop their baying for blood, apparently under the assumption that one more death would make things right again. Executing Timothy McVeigh certainly did not stop terrorist attacks in the US and if some dreadful symmetry is involved (an eye for an eye?), no one has enough eyes to compensate for the deaths of their victims. Such executions simply make killers of us all.
It began with certain sadness in the wake of the heroic death of Anne Smedinghoff, the young State Department representative killed in Afghanistan on April 6th delivering books to school children. She grew up not far from here and graduated from Fenwick, our Dominican high school in Oak Park. Her funeral was scheduled for Wednesday, April 17th – the same day as that of Margaret Thatcher in England. I was preparing to write about the telling contrast between these two women when the Boston Marathon erupted in terrible violence. As the nation was gripped by horror and bewilderment, a fertilizer factory exploded massively in West, Texas.
As the week drew on, tornadoes, sink holes, freakish weather patterns, wildfires, local floods, bomb attacks in Iraq, Afghan woes, devastating earthquakes in Iran and China, and even North Korean machinations faded from our screens and minds as American eyes focused almost exclusively on the tragic events in Boston. That focus shifted to the incomparable manhunt for the bombers, their capture, and now the hunt for explanations and the beginning of the political posturing as the blame game revs up in Congress. It was like a movie. Too like a movie.
Today, Sunday, the worn and sometimes ragged white ribbons that decorated almost every tree in River Forest, Anne Smedinghoff’s neighborhood, still flutter in the chill April air. In England, attention has shifted from the Thatcher funeral to the London Marathon. But the contrast between the two women remains fixed in my mind.
I did not know Anne Smedinghoff, nor did I ever meet Margaret Thatcher. But I lived in England during her long and, from my perspective, largely disastrous tenure as prime minister. I was there the night she was elected and in 1990 I was there the day she was dumped by her party in favor of John Major. Smedinghoff’s brief life was devoted to promoting peace through diplomacy — a dangerous mission in an explosive part of the world. (She had previously served in Caracas, Venezuela, and volunteered for the mission in Afghanistan.) Thatcher set out to remake England, and largely succeeded. She broke the trade unions, bled the middle class, ended England’s long history as a major manufacturing nation, and spoiled the educational system. So dire were the funding and administrative “reforms” she rammed through Parliament that in 1985 her alma mater, Oxford University, refused to grant her an honorary doctorate — a courtesy ordinarily extended to prime ministers who had studied there. It would not be wide of the mark to say that the English educational system is still a mess after all these years.
But Thatcher succeeded in executing a sharp right turn in English politics, converting even leaders of the Labour Party to the kind of fiscal and social entrepreneurship she favored. Once Gordon Brown was out of the way, the subsequent Blair years were very much like the Thatcher-Major years. And to David Cameron and the Tories, Thatcher achieved the status of a national heroine. Their suspicions of the European Union, and refusal to enter the common currency, remains part of the Iron Lady’s legacy.
To be sure, Thatcher was a resolute and forceful politician. She stood up to IRA terrorists, but also harmfully delayed the peace process in Northern Ireland. Discarding diplomatic means, in 1982 she waged a successful and bloody if mercifully brief war against Argentina over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, an English colony just off the coast of South America. And in tether with Ronald Reagan, she maneuvered Mikhail Gorbachev toward a nuclear stand-down that contributed weightily to the fall of the Soviet Union. Credit earned, without doubt.
After the fall, Thatcher was for a season the subject of a brilliant television sitcom called “Dun Rulin’” that detailed in high comedic fashion her imagined return to ordinary life in an English suburb. In real life, in 1992 Thatcher, who once sternly indicted the tobacco industry when she was prime minister, took on a million-dollar contract with Philip Morris to help hawk low-grade cigarettes to third world countries, resist taxing tobacco, and oppose anti-smoking legislation. That might be overlooked, but it seems consistent with her Ayn Rand-like ethics. Philip Morris expressed its satisfaction by celebrating her 70th birthday in Washington, D.C., with a million-dollar party.
Anne Smedinghoff died delivering books to impoverished school kids in Afghanistan. She had a modest if well-attended funeral by comparison. St. Luke’s lacked the pomp and circumstance and glorious music of the ten million-dollar funeral at St. Paul’s in London. But she was commended by the Secretary of State, the President of the United States, the Governor of Illinois, and thousands of citizens who still believe that a better world will ultimately be achieved, not by might nor by power, much less money, but by the works of peace, by the Spirit of a loving God (Zechariah 4:6).