2015

4 March 2015: A matter of free speech vs. desecration

A matter of free speech vs. desecration

If you missed Vincent Carroll’s column “Two vandals and the Denver police officers they dishonored” in last week’s Denver Post, I encourage you to read it online.

In a poignant and moving manner, Carroll recites the names of a number of fallen officers and relates their acts of heroism that led to their deaths.

By putting a human face on the names inscribed in the stone, Carroll gets at something deeper: In addition to being crass, immature, and offensive, the act of spilling red paint on the marker goes beyond the bounds of free political speech to what we might call desecration of the secular sacred.  If the perpetrators meant to offend, they more than succeeded even with those who might be empathetic to their essential point.  The act tears at the essence of our soul as a people.

In a democratic, religiously diverse, heterogenic society, certain objects and places take on a transcendent nature that once was and still is reserved for religious objects and sites such as the Koran and Mecca in Islamic cultures.  In America, the original drafts of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the Lincoln Memorial, and natural sites such as the Grand Canyon and Old Faithful have become sacred because they symbolize some essence of the American nation.

Joseph Campbell taught us that the literalness of an act is unimportant given its power lies in its symbolic nature, which goes beyond the natural realm.  That suggests the pouring of blood symbolically in the form of red paint on the monument was the more powerful aspect of the act.  It is one thing to vandalize but quite another to desecrate.

In the end, the Denver police marker symbolizes a confluence of heroic, self-sacrificing acts against the profane and of the innocent lives to which the officers gave, as Abraham Lincoln said of the Civil War soldiers who died at Gettysburg, “their last full measure of devotion.”  Thus, while the paint was meant to symbolize the blood of the victims of police brutality, it in turn became inverted, instead demeaning the fallen officers and those they protected.

While I inveigh against the all-too-easy spread of the gun culture that promotes violence, I also understand, perhaps paradoxically, guns and weapons remain integral in protecting the innocent from psychopaths whether American criminals or Islamic extremists.

As a long-time card-carrying ACLU member, I hold the rights to speech and to dissent are inviolable.  Certainly the young men were within their constitutional rights to express themselves, but the shock of their method served only to undercut their main point.  While it made dramatic, passionate theater, it detracted from their essential issue: excessive force by police.

With regard to the case of the case of the seventeen-year-old girl shot and killed by Denver police after she drove a car seemingly with the intent to run one over, my thought was threefold: a.: Why was she driving a stolen vehicle; b.) early in the morning; c.) when she should have been heading off to school?

I admit then to befuddlement about the outrage emanating from some.  By taking aim at another human being, an officer of the law or not, the driver put her life in harm’s way.  While one can totally understand the impulsiveness of the adolescent mind, it’s also true adolescent bodies are no less impervious to bullets as are adults’.

We need to continue talking about the proper role of law enforcement as well as the level and type of force used including the militarization of local forces, which suggests a police-state rather than a free people.  Congruently, we need to come to grips with the changing nature of law enforcement in this gun-crazed, shoot-‘em-up, high-tech society.

As citizens who appreciate and value the men and women who come to our rescue, we need to reassess our attitudes and perspectives.  The cops are not always right, but neither are those who find themselves at loggerheads with them.

As one who has called on their services, observed firsthand their willingness to assist, and gotten to know a number on personal basis, former Georgetown Marshal George Weidler, Capt. Bruce Snelling of the Clear Creek sheriff’s office, and recently sworn-in Sheriff Rick Albers among them, I want to express my gratitude to them.

It comes down to relationships.  Shrill voices and clownish acts do nothing to bridge gaps and bring understanding to a conflict.  Mutual respect and listening do.

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