[Insert Obvious Princess Bride Quote Here]

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.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous. Practices Law. Lives in Southern California. Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. Homebrewer. Atheist. No Partisan Preference. Likes: respectful and intelligent dialogue, good wine, and puppies. Dislikes: mass-produced barley pop, magical thinking, and insincere people. Follow him on Twitter at @burtlikko, and on Flipboard at Burt Likko.

42 Comments

  1. Terrorist means someone interested in spreading fear for political gain.
  2. Hello. My name is James Bellar . You dissed my cross. Prepare to die.
  3. There is a point beyond which I am much more willing to say “okay, you really ought to be able to describe what’s going on here with the words that you have.”
  4. “Religious Objects Used Suitably”?

    I don’t think they exist.

    • … oy. that reminds me of a story (treat it as apocryphal).
      One guy gives another a mission: “Take some good pictures of the parade. Make sure you find a good place to take ’em”
      Then, the second guy grins — the way any old soldier grins, and says, “I got it.”
      When the guy gets back with the pictures, the first guy frowns, and says “These look fantastic… but they look like you took ’em from high up…?”
      “Yeah, I got out my old crossbow and climbed up the water tower. Pictures turned out great.”

      … you win the story if you can tell me what branch of the military the guy’s from.

  5. The FFRF are outsiders, using the threat of a lawsuit to force Whiteville to do their bidding. If he’d said “thugs” instead of “terrorists”, I’d largely agree.
      • What word do you prefer: “Bullies”? “Busybodies”?
        • IMO, “thugs” and “bullies” also include intimations of violence, albeit less strongly than “terrorists.”

          Also IMO, the FFRF are the good guys; that’s not the Mayor’s cross on his private property, it’s the city’s cross on public property and it represents an endorsement of a particular religion by a governmental entity. As I see it, that’s an Establishment and therefore contrary to law.

          Given that they’re actually trying to do the right thing (make the government comply with the Constitution), that makes the FFRF, at most, the “meddling kids” absent whom the wrongdoers (despite an absence of malign intent) would have “gotten away with it.”

          • The Mormon Church had every right to pour money into the Prop, 8 race. I still consider them thuggish busybodies for having done so.
          • Feh. Let’s rub “Laus Deo” off the Washington Monument while we’re at it.

            “Terrorist” is a silly locution, but types like FFRF are at war with the culture that got us this far. The Burkean is nauseated at such cavalier destructiveness.

          • It’s a big state. LDS members are still only 2% of the state’s population.
          • Sure, but from the church’s perspective it’s absolute numbers that matter. It makes for a large number of Mormons that must be protected from the horrors of open homosexual love.
          • WillT, I had a utilitarian thought today: the prevalence of social pathologies among the Mormon population. Drugs, booze, homelessness, bastardy, dependence on social services, that sort of thing.

            I honestly don’t know and would like to see before thinking on it any further. From the Roman Empire to secular Europe to even affluent Muslim societies, the birthrate tends to plummet to or below replacement level. There are still a few Roman Catholics left who proliferate like rabbits, but Mormons stand out to me as a demographic rarity among affluent sub-cultures. Give ’em 100 or two years, and who knows what America will look like?

            [Although there will always be the Jews, eh? As Walker Percy asked, why are there no Hittites in New York City?]

          • Tom, I don’t have any numbers to support this, but these are things I seemed to pick up while in Deseret:

            1) They really do seem to be on the right side of most of the social pathologies. Lower instances of drug use, premature alcohol use, and so on. The wife reported very low levels of dysfunction in her patients there. However, I have a theory that in large numbers they tend to generate dysfunction among gentiles.

            2) The exception to this is social services. I’m not sure I met anyone on welfare until I moved to Deseret. It seems very common. Because of the children, they tend to qualify.

            2b) But they work. At least the fathers do. The wives tend to stay at home even when the man is pulling a pretty meager paycheck. A coworker made $10/hr with four kids. His wife stayed at home.

            2c) This is in addition to the Relief Society, the LDS’s private charity system. As an outsider, it struck me as incredible impressive. Due to the church being all up in the business of other churchmembers, they were allegedly really good at making sure that the system wasn’t abused. If you were collecting but not working, they’d find things for you to do. That sort of thing.

            3) I was really impressed with the work ethic out there. At least where I was, there was a “no job too small” attitude. It was exploited by employers. Tech supporting companies *love* Utah and Idaho. Well-spoken, reasonably educated individuals willing to work for $7/hr answering phones.

            4) People think of Mormons as being particularly affluent, but they really run the spectrum. By which I mean more than “there are some poor ones, too. There was a Poor But Proud thing going on where we were. The LDS marketing machine does a lot to perpetuate the well-to-do image. I typically don’t have trouble finding the words, but there is something I can’t quite explain about the relationship between the middle class Mormons and their country bumpkin brethren.

          • TVD,
            Demographic Winter is the Ruth Institute’s thing, ain’t it?
            I do say that trying to breed a population is a right wing religious thing (anyone got a counter from the left? — catholics don’t count, as they aren’t actively campaigning for eight kids per household…)
          • Thx for the report WillT. Seems like the America some want to go back to, but others say never existed.

            If there’s a polar opposite to #Occupy, it sounds like Mormonism.

          • Langston Hughes, of course. But while I won’t discount Hughes’ experiences — I haven’t had the experience of being and African-American and cannot ever really know what that feels like — what does that have to do with this obviously encouraging bit of reporting on real life Mormons in their natural habitat? From what Will says, these are highly desirable citizens. This lends weight to TVD‘s thesis that religion helps support a strong, vital culture and thus society in general.

            (Which does not say anything about whether the FFRF types are helping or hurting society, nor does it mean that the cross belongs either on top of that water tower or on somoene’s private property.)

    • So does the resident whose behalf they are acting on count as an outsider?
      • The unnamed one who might or might not exist? Hard to say.

        By the way, my favorite headline on that page is “Former Model Who Killed, Ate Husband Denied Parole”. I mean, who would care if she hadn’t been a model?

        • The barbeque sauce was a nice touch, though, as was her willingness to experiment with several different cooking techniques including roasting and deep-frying.
    • Mike, the point is that you are wrong and they are wrong. Shut the hell up and accept the fact that you’re wrong, okay?
      • Play nice, please. “Shut the hell up” is not playing nice.
        • I presume that “STHU” was sarcasm. Anyway, I’ve never stopped just because I was wrong, and I’m not going to start now.
          • I recognize that DD is often sarcastic, and I have a healthy quantum of respect for him as he is a capable interlocutor, even though he and I often disagree.

            Nevertheless, “play nice” is a rule I believe in firmly. Keeps the comments culture elevated enough that we can have intelligent exchanges. And DD has earned the right for a gentle caution, as opposed to a strike.

        • I apologize for the confusion; I was posting a stereotypical response while affecting an exaggerated attitude, with the intent of lampooning the viewpoint I was apparently expressing.
  6. Mumble something about a main page post concerning leverage and coercion and stuff.

    > “Words have meanings.”

    “To the pain!”

    Wesley is very exhaustively particular in his word choice.

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