Errol Morris, the documentary-maker whose films include The Fog of War, and Standard Operating Procedure, is a man who is interested in images, and in particular photographs. To mark the end of the Bush administration, at the end of January, Morris invited three photo editors to discuss a selection of images of W. ranging from the famous ‘mission accomplished’ photo through to an unfortunate shot of Bush involved with a Turkey in the White House garden. The fascinating discussion between Morris and these editors agrees on one thing – the importance of the image for any administration. Bush, for example, was said by many to ‘have found his voice’ when photo’ed at Ground Zero with a bullhorn in hand.
It’s not often that this blog agrees with Massimo D’Alema, the eminence gris of the current opposition party the PD’s, but commenting on the Englaro case he was spot-on about one thing. The mage presented of the case was very different to that of the reality.
The case that recently threatened a constitutional crisis, centred around the right to die of a girl, Eluana, who for 17 years has been in a vegetative state. Last November, Italy’s court of cassation ruled that Eluana had the right to have her artificial feeding suspended, the culmination of a long legal battle fought by Ms Englaro’s father to allow his daughter to die. The case was problematic on a number of levels – primarily because Italy has no specific legislation governing cases such as these (despite the fact that, for years, there have been calls from various groups to pass one in parliament). The consitution protects the right of a citizen to refuse medical treatment, but in Englaro’s case she was not in a position to consciously refuse treatment. Even had she been, it’s far from clear whether artificial feeding can be considered medical treatment.
As Eluana died in a nursing home, public and political opinion was sharply divided – to the point where Berlusconi’s government moved to introduce an emergency decree to effectively over-rule the court’s decision.
A case that was followed by a huge amount of people, and dominated by a handful of images – photos of a youthful and vibrant Eluana, taken before her accident.
D’Alema point was this, that had the Englaro family released a photo of Eluana in her current state, public opinion would have been overwhelmingly in favour of the court’s sentence. The family chose, though – and with every right – to maintain Eluana’s privacy, allowing no photos or TV crews to be present.
When Berlusconi intervened, talking about saving the life of a young woman capable of having a child, it was emotive language that tied in directly with the photo widely used. In reality Eluana, in a vegetative state for 17 years, showed no signs of what many of us would call life – the only way this poor woman could have a baby would have been through an intervention that would amount to rape.
The various different tragic ‘end of life’ cases that have challenged the inertia of a conservative political establishment have a common thread. They have been cases where brave individual citizens have, at great personal cost, taken the hard road in order to establish rights for others.
Both Luca Coscioni and Piergiorgio Welby in recent years fought for the legal right to die, both afflicted by terrible terminal diseases. Both died ‘naturally’ before their legal battles had been resolved one-way-or-the-other.
Both could have chosen to shy away from the public eye and, perhaps have convinced a sympathetic medical team to offer them mercy – something that no medic could do once their cases became high-profile. It’s hard to believe that no-such cases exist, where patients are allowed to die in the face of debilitating terminal disease.
Similarly Beppe Englaro’s fight to allow his daughter to die would have been made so much easier had he invited the image-hungry journalists into his daughter’s hospital room. Over the last number of years Englaro has appeared on numerous television programs to explain his daughter’s plight, but never carrying with him an image of her actual state. Instead he invited, on the day before her death, a journalist to see Eluana’s condition – which she duly recounted, but a picture tells a different story. He invited the intervening Berlusconi to come and see his daughter – an invitation which was not taken up.
This blog spends a lot of time detailing the mediocrity (and at times downright depravity) of the Italian political class – perhaps the worst in Europe.
The beauty of Italy, though, is in its numerous law-abiding and supremely civil citizens – perhaps the finest in Europe, because to be otherwise would be so much easier.