Our ham-fisted Congress strikes again by prohibiting protests at military funerals at all 122 national cemeteries.
The Senate's version of the “Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act” bars protests within 300 feet of the entrance of a cemetery and within 150 feet of a road into the cemetery from 60 minutes before until 60 minutes after a funeral. Violators face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. It passed in the Senate without objection and with no recorded vote after a nearly identical bill cleared the House 408-3 two weeks earlier.
As is usually the case, a law such as this one comes as an overreaction to behavior meant to evoke overreaction. In this situation, a Republican congressmen from Michigan (Mike Rogers):
....introduced the legislation after attending a funeral for a Michigan soldier killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Congressman witnessed firsthand a group led by Fred Phelps holding signs and hurling insults at those who attended the funeral. Phelps is pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., which has no affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention.
“What [the soldier’s family] was subjected to was nothing short of criminal,” Rogers said. “The vile, taunting hate speech went way beyond the bounds of common decency, and was clearly intended to harass and mock the families and their mourning.”
Phelps and his extended family have long made a practice of picketing with offensive language on signs at various events, often taunting homosexuals, but lately they’ve approached grieving military families with words such as “Thank God for IEDs,” or improvised explosive devices, which have killed a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Phelps and his followers from Westboro Baptist Church -- an independent church notorious for its “God hates fags” posters -- have staged protests at soldiers’ funerals in several states. The group reasons that roadside bombs killing American troops in Iraq are God’s retribution against America for a small bomb that caused approximately $1,800 damage outside the Topeka home of one of Phelps’ daughters in 1995. The group also emphasizes that it opposes the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents homosexuals from serving openly but also prohibits the military from asking soldiers about their sexual preference.
Nobody, at least nobody that I know, is defending or excusing Phelps' and his group's antics. But the "Respect for Fallen Heroes Act" was an unnecessary act of Congressional theater. It is equivalent to using an elephant gun to swat a mosquito; the boilerplate public nuisance laws would have addressed the aggravation that Phelps and his group caused, while leaving all Americans' rights intact. Slight changes to the regulations governing military funerals at national cemeteries could have eliminated such provocations in the future, but those changes wouldn't give Republicans the opening for broader "reforms" that they intend to implement down the road for silencing those opposed to their policies. With the "Respect for Fallen Heroes Act," the heavy authoritarian hand that we see throughout the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress has come down to squelch dissent and free speech.
The title of the legislation says everything about what is wrong with Bush, Cheney, all Republicans and their policies: Respect isn't something that can be legislated. You have to earn respect. Behave accordingly and respect comes on its own.
As I look around at websites that are discussing the new law, my heart is breaking from some of the comments of young lawyers and others looking for a way to eliminate the dissent of others that seems to come from a sense of an entitlement. From some inherent right that persons have, to have anything that might offend/displease/shock/disturb removed from public viewing or hearing.
How does this happen? Is it the result of an indulgent upbringing where a child's every whim is catered to by parents and caretakers? Or is it just the opposite, born out of a repressive upbringing in an authoritarian home where questioning authority is not tolerated? A home where a young child learns early on that independent thought that breaks with a parent's status quo ("Do what I say") doesn't bring rewards, but instead heavy punitive consequences.
Where does individual freedom take a back seat to fascism?
If I were to create an organization of peace activists who attended military funerals, at what point would we be breaking the law?:
We would remain silent throughout the entire time we represented our organization at the funerals. We would answer any and all inquiries as to our identities with the passing of a business card with our organization's name, a contact person's phone number and a message that read "We are saddened by the loss of this person in the service of this U.S. government."
All would dress in black business clothing, however, the identifying props of our organization would be on display - Oversized black hats (oversized black top hats for the men and oversized wide brimmed black hats, ala Andie McDowell's in "Four Weddings and a Funeral," for the women), oversized white linen handkerchiefs tied to the women's forefingers on their right hands and held up to their nostrils throughout the service.
No fewer than three of us would attend the funeral, and there would be no upper end limit.
We would all arrive together and we would all leave together.
We might all remain together in a bloc, or we might break up into groups of two or three (or more), or stand alone as singles, spread out throughout the funeral.
At what point, do you think, would somebody try to prevent us from attending a military funeral altogether or try to put restrictions on our presence at a military funeral?
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