This Week

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 1998," Dec. 5, 1998

Life imitates art?

Movie director and producer Alan Pakula's death was like a scene from one of his movies. A car kicked up a 7-foot section of pipe that had fallen to the road, and it crashed through the windshield of the car Mr. Pakula was driving and hit him in the head. Police say Mr. Pakula lost control of his Volvo and struck a fence. Mr. Pakula, 70, was a mainstay in Hollywood from 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird through last year's The Devil's Own. His peak came with suspense dramas that he called his "paranoid trilogy": Klute (which helped turn Jane Fonda's image from Red-star-starlet to serious actress), The Parallax View, and All the President's Men. Mr. Pakula once told an interviewer that his obsession with paranoia started with a fear of being kidnapped as a child. "Why anybody would kidnap me, I don't know," The London Guardian recalls. "Some false sense of importance, I guess. But if you are a fearful person, or grew up in a fearful childhood, there is a god-like quality in frightening other people."

Prime-time murder

Call it the highest-rated snuff film in American history. Jack Kevorkian's footage of his assisted suicide of Thomas Youk aired on 60 Minutes and gave the show its best ratings of the season-even after six affiliates owned by the A.H. Belo Corp. refused to air the program. Mr. Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease, died Sept. 17; that's less than three weeks after the state of Michigan enacted a law that made assisted suicide a crime (punishable by up to five years in prison). Prosecutor David Gorcyca then subpoenaed CBS for an unedited copy of Dr. Kervorkian's home movie. The charges that Dr. Kevorkian could face include manslaughter, murder, assisted suicide, practicing medicine without a license, and possession of a controlled substance. His license to practice medicine was suspended back in 1991. Faye Girsh, executive director of Hemlock Society USA, cheered Dr. Kevorkian's publicity stunt. She claims thousands of doctors quietly support-and perform-assisted suicides: "Dr. Kevorkian is only the tip of the iceberg." Dr. Kevorkian, who claims responsibility for some 130 suicides since 1990, has already been acquitted in three trials involving five deaths; a fourth trial ended in a mistrial. This time he released the tape to dare authorities to come after him. "If they do not," he told CBS, "that means they don't think it was a crime." At the time of Mr. Youk's death, Dr. Kevorkian was under a court order barring him from assisting a suicide; it came after he was convicted for scuffling with police outside a hospital. For the death doctor, this evidently was the first time he directly administered the deadly dose; before, he used a contraption that let the patient start the flow of poison. Westminster Seminary in California theologian John Frame, author of the book Medical Ethics, says this video opens a window of opportunity for Christians to speak out on the issue. If assisted suicide is legalized in America-as it has been in Switzerland, Holland, and Colombia-the consequences will be horrifying. "When the barriers are taken down," Mr. Frame explains, "people are scared to go to the hospital because they don't trust their doctors anymore."

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On the eve of impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill, nearly 100 religion scholars issued a stinging declaration on "Religion, Ethics, and the Clinton presidency." It protests "the manipulation of religion and the debasing of moral language" in the national debate about presidential responsibility. "Serious misunderstandings of repentance and forgiveness are being exploited for political advantage," it says. The resulting "moral confusion ... is a threat to the integrity of American religion and to the foundations of a civil society." The statement appears on a Web site the scholars established (www.moral-crisis.org), along with their names and individual comments. The list of scholars displays mostly mainline conservatives but includes many social liberals; the signers represent a variety of universities and seminaries, some of them long known as bastions of liberalism. Hardly any of the scholars would be identified with the religious right. Yet they believe "the religious community is in danger of being called upon to provide authentication for a politically motivated and incomplete repentance that seeks to avert serious consequences for wrongful acts." They were talking about the Sept. 11 religious leadership prayer breakfast at the White House where President Clinton delivered his "I have sinned" statement. The scholars lay out their case in six points. They take Mr. Clinton to task on a number of counts, especially "the debasing of the language of public discourse with the aim of avoiding responsibility for one's actions." They reject the premise that "violations of these ethical standards should be excused so long as a leader remains loyal to a particular political agenda and the nation is blessed by a strong economy." They challenge the "assumption that forgiveness relieves a person of further responsibility and serious consequences." Partisan politics have figured in past debates over public morality, the scholars acknowledge, but "we now confront a much deeper crisis: whether the moral basis of the constitutional system itself will be lost." They call on Americans to get serious about ethics and integrity in both public and private life, and to look on the impeachment process as a constitutional and ethical imperative.

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