Justice Alito is my favorite justice...but sadly, he got this one wrong

Christians are dying in the Muslim world. And Muslims are the ones, by and large, doing the killing. The killers adhere to a twisted version of the so-called ‘religion of peace,’ but they are self-described Muslims nonetheless.  And people are afraid to say it, for fear of being called bigots in the United States, or murdered in other countries that don’t have our beloved First Amendment.

I’m not afraid.  I’m safe in a country that, at least nominally, respects all religions and criminalizes violence against minorities.  I don’t worry that if I speak out against a particular faith (or support an unpopular one) I’ll end up pushing daisies.  That’s why I think all of that talk of incivility and hateful rhetoric in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting was ridiculous, disingenuous and simply a way to silence speech that we don’t like.

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I suppose that’s  the reason I am forced to agree, much against my will, with the Supreme Court’s decision this week protecting the right of an anti-gay, anti-military church to continue spewing its hatred at funerals.  While Westboro Baptist might have thought they won the constitutional battle, they are simply the unfortunate beneficiaries of a greater principle:  that in this country, even the vilest of opinions are protected.

My natural inclination is to agree with Justice Alito, whose dissent reflects my fundamental disgust with people like Michael Moore, Bill Maher and other polemicists who simply use words to get attention.  The Westboro Baptist crew are exactly like those two, putting their rhetorical fingers in the faces of people who disagree with them.  They are despicable.  But their actions are protected by the constitution, much as it makes my stomach turn to think that their vitriol is valued under the Founders’ scheme.

Words can be hurtful, sometimes even more painful than actual physical assaults.  But they do not kill.  People do that, and they are doing that in growing numbers in the Muslim world.  When you dare mention that it was a Muslim, egged on by his countryman, who killed Christian activist Shahbaz Bhatti the other day in Pakistan, you are called a bigot unless you clarify that this Muslim was a radical.  Of course, you are not held to that same stringent standard when you talk about Catholic priests, who can be tarred as pedophiles and pederasts with one broad brush.  But that’s another story.

The point here is that when you start censoring people because what they have to say is considered unpleasant or even heretical, you facilitate a situation like the one that currently reigns in Pakistan, where people are being murdered because they blaspheme against Muhammad.  Frankly, the things that the Westboro folk say about dead soldiers is far more disturbing than a few choice jabs at an ancient prophet.  I feel the same way about disrespectful depictions of Jesus.   My faith is strong enough that it can withstand the attacks of artists who paint with urine or cartoonists looking to get famous.  I would think Muslims should be able to achieve that same sense of balance.

But the fact is, lots of them can’t.  And they happen to have a stranglehold right now on the government of Pakistan, which has done absolutely nothing to protect the rights of Christians.  In the past few months, two poltical moderates, one Muslim and one Christian, have been assassinated because they spoke out against injustice against religious minorities.  In essence, they were ‘offensive.’

Here, in the United States, an insignificant religious minority (Westboro has about 12 actual members,) has offended a lot of good people too. But they have been protected by the rule of law that permits even the most offensive and misinformed people to spew their idiocy in a public venue.

My natural inclination is to agree with Justice Alito that ‘our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case.”  That is the observation of a compassionate man, and a justice who takes his obligations under the constitution very seriously.  But ultimately, I think that he’s wrong.  Ultimately, a verbal assault is exactly the type of thing that the First Amendment was designed to protect, so that we don’t devolve into a country where hateful and hurtful words are silenced by bullets.

I hate Westboro Baptist, as any sensient human being must.  But more than this splinter group that is gnat-like in its significance, I hate the people who killed moderate men because they believed in the freedom to offend Mohammed.