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If only Congress cared so much about the needs of the living

August 14, 2005|By Tim Rowland

The guy's dead. Burying him in one spot or another is not going to make him any deader. He's not going to know that we gave him one final "take that, scumbag!" even though he's probably deserving of it.

It might make us feel better if the remains of convicted killer Russell Wayne Wagner are hauled out of Arlington National Cemetery and dumped in some less-noble resting place, but Wagner himself is in no position to care one way or the other.

Death rites have always been for the living. They have always been emotional. They have always been easy to understand. Even the least intellectual among us can get worked up into a good lather thinking that a murderer will be laid to rest on the same grounds as some of our nation't most remarkable heroes.

And when I say "least intellectual," I am referring of course to the U.S. Senate, which this week indicated it would be willing to leap head first into the fray once its members return from recess. Well why not, it's a situation even a Senator can understand, and it has mundo vote-getting potential as well.

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While politicians were ginning up for a good, frothy case of moral outrage, Del. Chris Shank, R-Washington, probably gave the most reasonable response: In any such case you would have to consider the veteran's military record as well as his crime.

What if it turned out a veteran saved the lives of fellow soldiers? What if it turned out that a veteran was severely tramautized in combat? What if the military service led to drug addiction that hung on in later life to cause an ex-soldier to perform desparate acts?

Lots of vets have had their lives take bad turns once they returned to civilian lives, directly due to the mental or emotional stresses of war. Is their service to their country less valuable than men and women who, for whatever reason, were better equipped to brush aside the past and get on with normal, healthy lives?

Of course, there are doubtless plenty of cases where a bad person goes into the military, and a bad person comes out. It's possible Wagner was one of these and that he was what he was - a man who brutally burdered two helpless, elderly people.

Without access to his soul - which as we speak is otherwise occupied - we can't know. So we make rules as best we can, and try to make those rules apply fairly and equally to everyone.

In this case, it seems to me the people who make the rules should be those who served in combat. Because only they know how it is, and how a man or woman can be affected by hostile fire.

I'm sure that I don't know, and I am equally sure that - with a couple of notable exceptions - Congress doesn't know. In fact, there may be no greater collection of draft dodgers, deferrers and fortunate sons on the face of the earth that there is on Capitol Hill, or in politics in general.

That's what makes it so disgusting when they jump to the forefront to champion veterans' causes, not because they have any empathy for the vets, but because the act plays so well in the sticks. They have no clue what it's like to have a bullet whiz past their heads, but they sure know what it's like to hear the cheering crowd when they chat up the glories of our soldiers.

They usually do this right before they get into their limos and drive back to Washington, where they will vote against funding any program that would make a meaningful difference in a veteran's life. They love the vets - except at budget time.

And veterans' issues are an apt metaphor for the way Congress conducts all its business. Anything simple and emotional, anything that even the most dedicated Jerry Springer fan could noodle through and form a half-baked opinion about, Congress will be all over.

You know, all the stuff that has no material effect on a person's life. Flag burning, nativity scenes, school prayer - all the usual cozy suspects of no consequence.

Forget that no hungry child's belly has ever been filled by an unburned flag; that no nativity scene ever paid for a single mom's tankful of gasoline to get her to her second job; that on test day, the Almighty has a funny way of only answering the prayers of kids who have studied and have access to decent educational resources.

Paradoxically, the same people who cheer the loudest at a politician's plastic remarks on Veterans' Day will be the ones most severly hurt when Congress passes an energy bill that fattens the big corporations at the expense of the pump-paying public.

And the same people who cheer the loudest at a politician's empty glorification of family values will be the ones whose children will be most severely hurt one fine day by our grossly obese debt which, in case you've missed it, is being bought up by the Chinese.

Does it matter where the troubled dust that was once Russell Wayne Wagner ends up? To some, perhaps. What might matter more is if Congress should ever wash itself of empty symbolics and start paying more than a passing attention to the issues that directly affect our lives.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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