IT IS ENORMOUSLY difficult to say anything critical about Cindy Sheehan, the Everymom of the antiwar movement, without sounding indecently callous. She is, after all, a woman who has lost her child -- one of humankind's most universal images of grief. Her vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, where she has vowed to stay until the president meets with her and hears her out, has inspired great sympathy. Conservative attempts to make an issue of Sheehan's far-left ties have been cited as an example of how low those abominable right-wingers will to stoop: They'll even slime a grieving mother.
I respect Sheehan's pain, no doubt compounded by her mother's stroke last week. Yet Sheehan is not simply expressing her pain and rage, privately or even publicly; when she turns her grief into a political cause, her politics cannot remain off-limits.
Sheehan's first and foremost demand is that all American troops be brought home from Iraq immediately. On this scale, irrationality becomes dangerous. Even many of those who opposed the war in Iraq from the start are convinced that a quick pullout would be a disaster -- both for the Iraqis, and for all those who would suffer if Iraq became a fully operational terrorist base. Who will have to give account to the bereaved men and women whose loved ones will be killed as a result?
But there's more than that to Sheehan's politics. She is not simply against the war in Iraq (and, as she told talk show host Chris Matthews on CNBC, against the war in Afghanistan as well). She has thrown in her lot with the hardcore Michael Moore left, and this less savory aspect of her crusade has been largely ignored by the respectful media.
In her public appearances, Sheehan has not only called Bush ''the biggest terrorist in the world" but suggested that his ''band of neocons" deliberately allowed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 to happen: ''9/11 was their Pearl Harbor to get their neo-con agenda through," she told a cheering crowd at San Francisco State University last April.
That crowd, by the way, was holding a rally in support of Lynne Stewart, a radical New York attorney convicted in 2003 of aiding and abetting a terrorist conspiracy. Sheehan compared Stewart -- who served as a liaison between her incarcerated client, terrorist mastermind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, and his network outside -- to Atticus Finch, the lawyer in ''To Kill a Mockingbird" who heroically defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in the Jim Crow South.
Even more troubling opinions have surfaced in an e-mail Sheehan sent to ABC News last April: ''Am I emotional? Yes, my first born was murdered. Am I angry? Yes, he was killed for lies and for a PNAC [Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative think thank] Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel."
After some media outlets publicized these comments, which smack of blaming the Jews for drawing the U.S. into the war in Iraq, Sheehan disavowed them: she claims the offending lines were inserted into her email by an ABC News staffer. (The original email has been lost due to an Internet virus attack.) But this latest conspiracy-mongering is hard to believe, especially given the general anti-Israel tenor of Sheehan's public statements: for instance, she railed against the notion that ''it's okay for Israel to have nuclear weapons, but Iran or Syria better not get nuclear weapons."
A comment on the left-wing website Daily Kos described Sheehan as ''Terri Schiavo reincarnated." I believe this was meant as a compliment. But actually, the Sheehan circus has a lot in common with the Schiavo circus, none of it good. Both stories represent a triumph -- on different sides of the political divide -- of emotion- and sentiment-driven politics. Schiavo's parents could go off on paranoid, crazy, vitriolic rants, and enjoy a certain immunity by virtue of their unthinkable tragedy. The same is true of Sheehan.
Sheehan's grief entitles her to sympathy, which is why I believe the president should have granted her the meeting she wanted. (On pragmatic grounds, it would have also taken the sting out of Sheehan's protest.) But her loss does not give her, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has claimed, an ''absolute" moral authority -- any more than it would if her reaction to her son's death was to demand a US nuclear strike against the insurgents.
Correction: Last week I referred to Robert Byrd as a senator from Virginia. He is from West Virginia.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.