Back in 2005, a woman named Cindy Sheehan was camping outside President George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Sheehan's son Casey had died in the Iraq War that Bush had started, and Sheehan's vigil turned her into a heroine for many of the war's opponents, including Dowd. "The moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq," wrote the New York Times columnist, "is absolute."
Unfortunately for Dowd, other parents also had lost children in Iraq, and some of them stepped forward to say they still continued to support the war, which had a rather complicating effect on Dowd's overall point. But that is a logical consideration, and Dowd was not trying to make any logical arguments. She was trying to overwhelm them with sentiment.
Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, did the same last week when he tore into civil libertarians concerned about domestic spying. The House had then just finished debating legislation sponsored by libertarian Republican Rep. Justin Amash to rein in the National Security Agency. Speaking "as a former prosecutor who was appointed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 10, 2001," Christie said he wanted "us to be really cautious, because this strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought."
Dismissing those holding "these esoteric, intellectual debates," he continued: "I want them to come to New Jersey and sit across from the widows and the orphans and have that conversation. And they won't, because that's a much tougher conversation to have."
In one regard, Christie is right: It certainly is hard to tell someone who lost a loved one on 9/11 that the government should refrain from taking any step that conceivably might prevent a future attack. It is hard because doing so could add to their pain, and people of good will do not want to make anyone's suffering worse.
But in another more important regard, Christie is wrong – as Christie's own behavior should demonstrate.
Example: Back in February, Christie signed an executive order loosening restrictions on alcohol sales. (The order lets establishments that have seasonal licenses to sell booze start doing so two months earlier.) No doubt he had good reasons, such as helping businesses recover from the economic hit of Hurricane Sandy.
On the other hand, according to the Centers for Disease Control alcohol annually causes 75,000 premature deaths in the United States – which is 25 times the death toll of 9/11. Would Christie be willing to sit down with the widows and orphans of drunk-driving victims, or of alcoholics who slowly drank themselves to death, and explain why he is making it easier for people to drink? That would be a tough conversation to have. But it would not make Christie wrong on the merits.
Here's another: Last month Christie, a critic of Obamacare, vetoed a bill to make the expansion of Medicaid in New Jersey permanent. Would he sit down with the widows and orphans of people who died from a lack of affordable health care and explain his "esoteric, intellectual" rationale for the veto? That would be tough, too. But it would not, ipso facto, make him wrong.
Christie has been more open to gun control than other Republicans, but he does not support a total ban on all private firearms. Would he tell the widows and orphans of gun violence why? Christie does not support putting armed guards in schools to prevent mass shootings. Would he explain why to the grieving parents of Newtown, Conn.?
Government exists to protect all people's rights, not some people's feelings. A country in which the government can, in the name of national security, invade any home or arrest any person, with no explanation and no appeal, might be secure from foreign invasion. But its people are not safe – they are simply threatened by a different menace.
For all their intensity, emotions simply do not provide a good basis for settling disputes. They do not tell us whether a proposed remedy might actually work; or, if it works, whether it would do more harm than good; or whether some other remedy might cost less and work better. They do not tell us what is right, and what is wrong. Raw pain should command our sympathies. But it should not overwhelm our senses.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.