Finally, we can all agree on something

March 31, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

Is it possible left and right, and even the middle, agree that the Westboro bigots and hate-mongers are appalling and that the father of the slain Marine whose funeral they picketed should not have to pay any part of the head bigot-and-hate-monger's legal bill?

Do we all agree?

Can we all just get along?

You'll have to excuse my skepticism.

Didn't we just come out of a national "debate" over health insurance for all Americans, with various tea-baggers and other overwrought "patriots," some of them armed, presenting images of Barack Obama as Hitler? Didn't some protestors, aligned with the extreme right, ridicule an openly gay congressman, and a man with Parkinson's disease? Didn't 10 Democratic members of Congress report death threats after they voted to extend health insurance to 32 million Americans?

What was that about Sarah Palin saying it was time to "reload" and using on her Facebook page crosshairs to target Democrats who voted for the bill?

In the middle of this, comes the story of Albert Snyder, who lives just up the road from Baltimore, in York, Pa. His story has been hard to watch from the start. When we first heard about Mr. Snyder, his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, just three years out of high school in Carroll County, Maryland, had been killed in Al Anbar province, Iraq.

That was four years ago. By then, most Americans and the media only gave passing attention to the war in Iraq.

But Cpl. Snyder's funeral in Westminster got attention.

The Westboro hate-mongers were there, as they had threatened to be, and these fundamentalist Baptists from Kansas held up signs saying "God hates fags," "God hates the USA," and "Thank God for Dead Soldiers." The group had picketed other military funerals, but a lot of us were just getting hip to the Westboro "church" at the time of Matthew Snyder's.

And the reason for their desire to disturb the most solemn of occasions, went like this: They believe God was killing American soldiers to punish the country for tolerating homosexuality.

It's about as extreme, as weird and as ugly as anything people do out in the open -- spew hateful rhetoric at a Marine's funeral, with his grieving relatives standing there, to make some sick point.

Albert Snyder was so distraught that he sued the hate-mongers. He claimed invasion of privacy and said the words and signs inflicted emotional distress. A federal jury in Baltimore awarded him $11 million in damages. The award was later reduced and eventually overturned on free-speech grounds by an appellate court that added insult to injury by ordering Mr. Snyder to pay some of Westboro's legal defense costs -- about $16,500.

That's when a good, healthy cry came out of the country, into prime time and onto the front pages.

Bill "Shut Up!" O'Reilly got into it. So did the conservative commentator Michelle Malkin. People from all over the political spectrum are angry, and many have offered to help pay Mr. Snyder's bill.

Even those of us who reluctantly accept that Westboro members have a right to express their twisted views join in this outrage.

It looks like all of us -- except for the 60 or so members of this bizarre cult -- agree that making Mr. Snyder pay this bill is a huge insult.

Maybe it's easy to agree on this one, but sometimes agreement across the great American cultural divide is good.

We can only hope this healthy reaction against hatred continues and that those, like Bill O'Reilly and Michelle Malkin or Rush Limbaugh, who like to gin up their followers with provocative and nasty commentary, will think about the power of their words to inflict harm next time. Same with the politicians who are decrying Mr. Snyder's $16,510.80 bill for Westboro's court costs.

Let freedom ring. Let civility reign.

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