Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ultimate Power, Terrible Aim

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I'm a great believer in the First Amendment. You know, freedom of speech, freedom to practice one's faith, freedom to assemble, all that good stuff. I believe in that. I really do.

But brothers and sisters, some days my faith is sorely tested. When I see people picketing the funerals --the funerals!--of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, my blood pressure goes up. My eyes get red, and my teeth get all pointy. Deep in my heart, something growls, "No. No way. That's not protected." I'm sure you feel the same way. Some of you are probably balling your hands into fists right now at the very idea, going, "Those doggone left-wingers! Have they no shame?"

Well, anyone who'd picket a funeral has no shame, it's true. But it's not left-wingers who are carrying signs and chanting slogans at the final ceremonies for our war dead. It's anti-gay protesters. The "Reverend" Fred Phelps and his band of gay-hating followers at the Westboro Baptist "Church" in Topeka, Kan., have been standing outside the cemeteries, waving placards that say things like "Thank God for IEDs."

It's not just soldiers, either. According to The Army Times, members of the "church" also showed up in West Virginia at a memorial for the men killed in the Sago Mine disaster, this time with signs saying "Thank God for Dead Miners" and "Miners in Hell."

Now, to most people, it would seem illogical to hold a gay-bashing protest directed at two groups of people, namely soldiers and West Virginia coal miners, who are among the least likely people in the country to be gay, at least openly.

But in the mad, twisted mind of someone like Fred Phelps, logic goes through some strange contortions. The soldiers (and the coal miners) died, according to this "logic," because of America's tolerance of homosexuals.

"When God sets out to punish a nation," claims Shirley Phelps-Roper, Fred's daughter and spokes-harpy, "it is with the sword. An IED is just a broken-up sword. Since that is His weapon of choice, our forum of choice has got to be a dead soldier's funeral."

I'm a pretty bright guy, if I do say so myself, and I know for sure my readers are a smart bunch. But I'm sure I'm not the only person who read that and went "Huh?" And I'm sure I'm not the only person that gets angry at the thought of these ninnies working out their own homophobia by getting in the face of widows and orphans.

But is this really different from people like Pat Robertson, who blamed Hurricane Katrina on -- get this --- Ellen Degeneres? God struck New Orleans, according to Robertson, because the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (which is, the last time I looked, in Hollywood) picked Ellen Degeneres (who is, the last time I looked, a lesbian) to host the Emmy awards show (which was, the last time I looked, totally lame).

How does this make sense, you may ask? Ellen's from New Orleans. She wasn't there when the hurricane hit, mind you, but she used to live there, so God punished the people who offered her a job several hundred miles away by destroying her hometown.

The Lord of All Things: ultimate power, terrible aim.

But back to Crazy Fred.

When I first heard of Phelps & Company's shenanigans, one of the first thoughts in my head was "there oughta be a law." And now there is. Recently, President Bush signed into law the "Respect for Fallen Heroes Act," which was aimed directly at Phelps and his gang.

The new law bars protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery. This restriction applies an hour before until an hour after a funeral. Those violating the act would face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison.

So, even though I got what I thought I wanted, I couldn't help but feel a vague unease. Then I remembered. Free speech isn't just for the things I agree with. Free speech is also for the things that raise my blood pressure.

As Winston Churchill once said: "Everyone is in favor of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people's idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage."

We need to be careful that we don't make our laws out of outrage, however justified, because outrage makes for bad laws. Once we set our feet on the slippery slope, who's to say what's next? Restrictions on picketing, say, in front of the Pentagon? The White House?

Besides, this may be a problem that already had a solution. A group of 'bike clubs' (the hairy guys in leather, not the skinny guys in funny shorts) has been going to funerals targeted by the protesters. The bikers place themselves between protesters and mourners, exercising free speech in their own way.

Good for them, I say. The answer to people abusing the right of free speech is not restrictive legislation.

It's to use your own to talk back.


Flip Dixon said...

I vaguely recall similar "distance" laws being enacted to prevent demonstrators from protesting too close to abortion clinics. This was over ten years ago, I think.

I know this was challenged constitutionally, but I'm not sure how it turned out.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"The Reverend" Fred Phelps (his congregation consists mainly of his own relatives) first gained notoriety in the 1990s by picketing at the funeral of Matthew Shepard. You'll recall that Shepard was beaten and left to die on barbed wire fence for supposedly coming on to another man in a bar. Phelps and his minions jeered the mourners, and held up signs reading "God Hates Fags." He's been doing it ever since.

People are finally paying attention to Phelps now that he has broadened his attacks (though it all still boils down to his hatred of gays). While I am glad that he can no longer disrupt military funerals, I'm still uncomfortable with the legislation. I think it could be used as precedent for other bills restricting our First Amendment rights. By no means am I a legal scholar, but I would be surprised if it isn't challenged in court.

David Terrenoire said...

This should be challenged in court, but it's my opinion that this is all more sideshow, all more diversion to get us all exercised over inconsequential crap when the real outrage, the real crime, is the war that put those kids in those boxes to begin with.

On a side note, the right wing blogosphere is desperately trying to distance themselves from Phelps by claiming he's a Democrat and once worked for Gore's campaign.

While true, it hardly makes Phelps the liberal they'd like him to be. This guy has Christian Right conservative stink all over him.

Forrest Proper said...

I lived in Cambridge two years ago when we had the first gay marriages. Phelps and his crew were out there, in full force, with signs that proclaimed "Thank God for 9-11".

It seems that 9-11 was God's judgement against America for tolerating gay folks, and that is something that they support.

It's a diffcult issue, because I am in favor of letting families bury their dead in peace. Yet I am also in favor of the freedom of idiots to speak.

Perhaps we can strike a happy medium, where a family can have their right to privacy, and others can have their freedom of speech, without it coming to a third group busting heads.

Anonymous said...

I know that this is totally unliberal and a reflection on my redneck roots but during my several years hanging out in rough bars I have come to the conclusion that an ass kickin' is the only way some folks learn. The problem is the local police always keep the good reverend from receiving a proper learning experience. Maybe if we all just kicked in a little cash for a few crispy cremes at the local diner, it could slow down the local police long enough for the good reverend to get the lesson he so richly deserves. I'll contribute a dozen.


David Terrenoire said...


It's tough to argue against your suggestion.

Consider me in for a dozen chocolate.