The West Tennessee town of Whiteville has a cross on its municipal water tower. The Freedom From Religion Foundation thinks it needs to come down and is prepared to file a lawsuit to make that happen. Is the cross an Establishment Clause violation? Is its presence there justified by the Free Exercise Clause?
I’m not going to get into a legal analysis here. What’s interesting to me this morning is the mayor’s defiant reaction, and more specifically, the semantics deployed therein:
“They are terrorists as far as I’m concerned,” said Mayor James Bellar about the Freedom From Religion Foundation. … A terrorist is more than a guy that flies the planes into the building,” he said. “It’s anyone who can disrupt your way of living, destroy your lifestyle, cause you anxiety. It’s more than killing people. If they can disrupt your routine in life, that’s what they want to do. They are terrorists as far as I’m concerned.”
Really? That’s how we’re going to define terrorism? You don’t think that something is missing from that definition? Maybe we ought to include an element of violence in there, Mr. Mayor?
I get that the mayor doesn’t like this group from Wisconsin, what it stands for, and what it wants to do, and that his vision of America at its best is at odds with the FFRF’s vision of America at its best. I totally grok that he resents these outsiders coming into his town and deigning to tell him what to do, and that this arrogance alone is cause for considerable defensiveness even apart from whether he personally likes the cross or not (although other quotes in the article suggest that indeed, he likes the cross just fine). I have particular sympathy for the fact that they’re credibly threatening to sue him, and no one likes to get sued. And finally, I understand well that the mayor was very like indulging in a bit of hyperbole here, or maybe a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu that, IMO, falls flaccid for its overreach.
After all, calling someone a “terrorist” has some consequences. For at least some people, it indicates that the “terrorist” is owed no rights whatsoever, and that any means necessary to thwart the “terrorist” from realizing his goals and any means necessary to kill — yes, kill, I’m talking violence here — the “terrorist” is legally and ethically justified. You may disagree with the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s thesis, goals, and actions, but I hope that even so, you’d agree that they do not deserve torture and death, nor do they justify the subversion of the rule of law.
In another post, fellow Sub-Ordinary Jaybird suggested that things like this may well be a failure of vocabulary as opposed to a sincere expression of the unpacked sentiment thus expressed. Fair enough. But the fact is, our routines in life are under constant threat of disruption and are constantly changing. Changes in one’s lifestyle imposed from without which causes anxiety are commonplace in today’s world. I am anxious about my house being upside down in value. Are “terrorists” responsible for this? If so, who are they?
It used to be fashionable in certain quarters to say, “Words have meanings.” The word “terrorist” has a meaning. Agree or disagree with them and their causes, but people who file impact litigation are not terrorists. They’re American citizens, exercising their Constitutional rights to present their grievances before a court. You certainly don’t have to celebrate being on the receiving end of that sort of thing, but please do dial the rhetoric down from eleven.