Friday, December 3, 2010

Disabled vet stalks WBC members, invites heckler's veto

A disabled Afghanistan veteran was arrested today in my hometown of Wichita Kansas on charges of stalking members of the Westboro Baptist Church:
Prosecutors charged [Ryan] Newell, 26, with five misdemeanors Thursday, including stalking and three counts of criminal use of a firearm in an incident involving the Phelps family of Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. He also was charged with false impersonation of a law enforcement officer. . .

Sedgwick County sheriff's detectives arrested Newell mid-morning Tuesday in the Wichita City Hall parking lot after a detective saw him following a van that carried Westboro church members.

The church members were meeting in City Hall with police officials. Detectives found Newell in a vehicle backed into a parking space. In the vehicle, investigators found two handguns, a rifle and more than 90 rounds of ammunition, sources have said.

The stalking charge accuses Newell of actions targeted at Westboro members and putting them in fear for their safety.

The weapons charges accuse him of unlawfully carrying and concealing or possessing with "intent to use" an M4 rifle, .45-caliber Glock handgun and .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun.

"I just can't imagine him wanting to hurt anybody," his grandmother, Bonnie Crosby, said.

Agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives went to Newell's home, and his wife turned over items — including firearms — to law enforcement, said a source close to the investigation.

Newell, who appeared in the courtroom through a video connection with the Sedgwick County Jail, was seated in a wheelchair and was wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. He was ordered to have no contact with members of the Westboro Baptist Church or the Phelps family.

Two lawyers appeared in court offering to represent Newell, who grew up in Goddard. He told Judge Ben Burgess that he had also received offers from a number of other lawyers.

Burgess quipped, "The more the merrier, I suppose."

Newell remains in jail on $500,000 bond.
I've already seen sentiments along the lines that the police should've looked the other way and allowed him to shoot some people, that the WBC's protests should be banned on the grounds that they will provoke this kind of reaction, even that the members of Westboro should have their children taken away because their protests are subjecting them to violence.  Probably no body of people comes as close to being universally reviled in the United States as the WBC, but even so the idea that this justifies murdering them is too insane for me to contemplate.  I can't even giggle sarcastically about the idea, though I fully understand people's reasons for loathing the group.

I've been aware of the WBC before most people outside of Kansas, probably, given that they showed up at my brother's 1995 law school graduation at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  Guess they thought someone gay was graduating?  I was in high school at the time and wanted to confront them, but my mom said it would be a really bad idea.  They've gained steadily in notoriety over the years, first rocketing into it in 1998 with their protest of Matthew Shepherd's funeral and subsequent funerals of gays waving signs declaring that God hates fags, and then in 2005 when they started protesting funerals of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds that their deaths are punishments from the Lord for the country's moral decline.  I think pretty much everyone knows who their patriarch Fred Phelps is by now.  He's a former civil rights attorney who attended the same law school as my father (though not at the same time) but was disbarred and apparently went a bit insane.  He has thirteen children, four of whom are estranged from the family, and I believe the rest have been trained up as diligent sign-waving homophobes.  People make parties out of counter-protesting them now-- they show up in crazy costumes waving signs of their own, usually vastly out-number the WBC crowd (not a big church population), and have a grand time.  But the WBC's practice of protesting the funerals of soldiers has infuriated people to the point that the Supreme Court is currently trying to decide whether they have the right to do so. 

That being the case...with these claims that their right to protest in general should be taken away, and even that their children should be taken from them, I'm hearing "Ground Zero mosque! OMG!" all over again.  It's the heckler's veto-- the argument that we can restrict people's freedom of speech on the grounds that it may provoke violence.  Effectively, it allows people who are willing to be violent to restrict the rights of those whose speech they would use as justification for violence, by punishing the speech rather than the violent response.  We cannot do that, whether the speech in question is admirable or despicable.  Hecklers are people who prevent the speech of others by drowning them out.  Violence attempts to silence others by frightening them, physically incapacitating them, or in the case of a heckler's veto by getting the government to outlaw certain kinds of speech in the name of their own protection.  It really disturbs me that, hated as the WBC is, people would leap to this conclusion upon hearing that a potential candidate has stepped up to the plate.  Contributing to this man's defense or expressing "wry" disappointment that he didn't actually kill anyone, to my eyes, looks like an expression of sympathy for his actions and gratitude that someone (not us, of course) was willing to show up and do the dirty work.  Rather like the remarks at various points between half-hearted condemnation and whole-hearted support that came from various pro-life activists when Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller last year, also in Wichita.

Everything about that is wrong to me.  I can't be that kind of cheerleader, no matter who the gun is aimed at.  And I can't use the fact that someone else is willing to aim the gun as justification for legally preventing his target from doing whatever is angering him (and maybe me) so badly.

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