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Schultz: Public opinion has its limits

Published: Friday, Sept. 13, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Like so many Americans, I woke up on this year’s Sept. 11 with memories of that other Sept. 11 on my mind. Where I was standing when I first heard. How quickly the confusion gave way to horror and then to fear. The pulse that pounded in my head until I heard the voices of every person I loved.

Also like so many other Americans, I remembered once I was up and moving that I’m worried about what comes next in Syria. I was heartened by the president’s address the night before, but only a little. He was scheduled to speak at 9 p.m. At 8:45 p.m., it was still nearly 90 degrees in Northeast Ohio, where I live, and the system could not hold. The power went out, and our street went black minutes before the president’s broadcast.

I ran out to my car in the driveway, turned it on and blasted the air conditioning and the radio. It felt appropriate to be sitting alone, surrounded by darkness, as the president described once again the horrors after Bashar Assad’s government gassed more than 1,000 of Syria’s citizens, hundreds of children.

“The images from this massacre are sickening,” he said. “Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas; others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath; a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits – a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.”

Once you’ve seen the photos of little bodies lined up, it is impossible to forget them.

We will wait, the president said, to give diplomacy a chance to work. We will wait, but not indefinitely.

Polls indicate that the majority of Americans oppose a U.S. attack on Syria, regardless of how limited its scope. I am grateful for this debate, but I am aware of its limits.

I will not forget the error of public opinion in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Back then, the majority of Americans – and virtually all newspaper editorial boards – bought into a lie and supported the invasion. Eight years later, nearly 4,500 Americans were dead; another 30,000 were wounded. There were financial tolls, too. The U.S. spent more than $2 trillion on that war, inflating the national debt.

I was already a newspaper columnist during the lead-up to the war. My soon-to-be husband was a member of Congress. Recently, we were packing up our house for a move, when I found two boxes full of hate mail from that time. Countless readers and constituents were angry with our opposition to the Iraq War. A few days ago, I sat in the garage and read a few of the letters – “coward” and “traitor” popped up a lot – and appreciated the timely reminder that we never should confuse consensus with leadership.

Rarely do our leaders know everything before they must do something. Ultimately, it comes down to judgment. I do not always agree with President Barack Obama, as anyone who has sat at my kitchen table could tell you. But I trust his good intentions, his thoughtful – even plodding – nature. It is impossible to know a president’s mind, but I am heartened by this president’s lack of swagger.

How the mind wanders in these troubled times. Earlier this week, while I was out walking our dog, I thought about a little girl’s headband I’d seen a few weeks earlier. It had been early in the morning, when the dew still is waiting for the sun to make up its mind.

The headband was wrapped around a public fencepost. It was light blue, one of those elastic bands that little girls loop around their necks and then push up to frame their faces.

I touched the headband and imagined its young owner laughing as she ran down the street with friends, oblivious to the band slipping off her head and falling to the ground. I saw her hair suddenly loose in the wind. Her mother holding out her arms to greet her, wondering aloud, “What happened to your headband?” Maybe they laughed about it. Maybe they figured that they never would see it again and that was as bad as the news would get.

I thought of the stranger who found it and wrapped it around a fencepost, hoping it would find its owner. Such a simple act of kindness. I pulled out my phone, snapped a picture and didn’t think about it for weeks.

Now I can’t get that headband off my mind.

Some girls are born so lucky.

• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.

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