I’m a guy who loves a good, well-deserved punch. I grew up knowing that, from time-to-time, I would have to be able to stand my ground and defend my values and beliefs. I never shied away from a fight, even when the odds were stacked against me. I never started a fight, never threw the first punch, but also never backed down. I was stubborn, I was young, and I had a temper. Not a good combination. And I was 17 years old when the police first introduced me to the concept of the legal consequences associated with inflicting physical harm on someone, even if they had it coming.
But the temper never really faded and I still had a strong taste for schoolyard justice. In the late 80s, when a group of protesters burning the United States flag on the steps of the Tennessee state capitol were beaten senseless by a ragtag collection of bikers, I applauded. I cheered more when, after their arrest, the judge fined them each a dollar and sent them on their way. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire spectacle and it was a hot topic in the First Sergeant’s office.
Except the First Sergeant wasn’t amused. He was pissed.
“Sir, you might not like it, but them boys have rights.”
“How do you figure, Top? They were burning the flag. They deserved what they got.”
“No, sir. The Supreme Court said that it’s free speech.”
“That’s bullshit. How can burning the American flag be free speech?”
“I don’t know, but it is. And you swore and oath to support and defend the Constitution. So, you might not like it, but it’s your job to defend it.”
It’s been nearly 30 years since that conversation. I still don’t like it when I see someone burning the flag, but at least I understand. After spending most of that 30 years defending their 1st Amendment right to free speech (among others), I begrudgingly accept the fact that just because I don’t like what I see (or hear), my oath wouldn’t mean much if I didn’t stand behind it.
Fast forward to the aftermath of a fairly tumultuous inauguration day, and I find the internet ablaze with people celebrating “the sucker-punch heard around the world.”
Now, I think most of us can agree that the recipient of the punch, so-called white-nationalist Richard Spencer, is pretty much the epitome of what the Urban Dictionary defines as a “douche canoe.” His views are offensive, his rhetoric antithetical to our national values, and his haircut, well… reminiscent of a bad day from a Three Stooges film. He’s also quite proud of his Pepe the Frog pin, which has become an internationally-recognized symbol of hate and intolerance. So, yeah, not exactly the guy you want to exchange cards with on Valentine’s Day.
The only thing? The Constitution protects his right to be an asshat.
If anything, this is Karma coming full circle, in the form of a hooded and masked version of the aforementioned “douche canoe,” who throws a punch like my sister after a few too many glasses of wine, then proceeds to run away, ostensibly to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. Looking back on the flag burning incident at the Tennessee capitol, at least those bikers had the courage to face off against their opponents, and hung around to face the music when the law arrived. So, while I have no sympathy for Spencer, I also have no respect for the act of moral cowardice shown by his antagonist.
C’mon, man. If you don’t like what the guy is saying, at least have the guts to face off with him, debate him in public, hell… challenge him to a battle royal on the streets of DC. If you feel obligated to throw a punch, then don’t make it a sucker-punch. Go mano-y-mano, toe-to-toe. Stick around to pay your $1 fine (or whatever it is today). Take off your mask and hood. Let everyone know it was you and what you stand for… but don’t level a cheap (and poorly-thrown) sucker-punch and run away. That makes you no better than the knucklehead you punched.
As I watched the internet celebrations gain momentum, I weighed in on a couple of the more animated discussion threads. Some were led by servicemembers who clearly don’t fully understand the meaning of their oath (I get it, I was once in the same boat), but many more were generated by some of my more liberal friends, most of whom haven’t sworn an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but would vigorously defend it if pressed. In most cases, it was just schoolyard banter. “We’ve been punching Nazis since World War II!!” “It’s our duty!” Throw in images of Captain America or Superman going hell-bent for leather on Hitler, and you get the picture. (As an avid fan of comics, let me point out that neither Cap nor Kal-El would have run away after punching Hitler.)
Then I stepped into the swamp (literally, because the discussion thread was led by three highly-educated acquaintances who are mid-career officials in a traditionally free-thinking government department located in Foggy Bottom). These are people who, for years, have served as beacons of free speech and civil rights for me. People who would — as I mentioned above — vigorously defend the Constitution… or so I thought. In their post-sucker-punch reverie, they were taking turns shouting down another member of their department who pointed out that, as reprehensible as he might be, Richard Spencer has a Constitutionally-protected right to free speech. Hate the man, hate the speech, but respect the Constitution.
So, I added my two cents to the conversation. In fact, I used the example of the flag burning incident, explaining briefly how Spencer — no matter how much we may disagree with him — still has a protected right to free speech. That sucker-punch, as satisfying at it might seem at the moment, was both an assault on his person and the Constitution itself. A short, but reasoned response. Facts, not emotions.
“Counterpoint: Boston Tea Party.” came the first response.
“That’s not a counterpoint. It’s not even a point. That sucker-punch was no more right than throwing a brick through the window of Starbucks (a reference to the vandalism perpetrated by members of the same mob).” The Boston Tea Party was an inflection point in our history. It would be a bizarre stretch to compare the actions of the Sons of Liberty that night in Boston Harbor to some idiot sucker-punching a white nationalist and running away. But I rolled with it.
“The point is that violence is acceptable” in these cases. He went on to explain that the vandalism — specifically the destruction of property — was warranted in protest to the white nationalist movement. Spray-painting obscene graffiti, breaking windows, burning a limousine… all perfectly reasonable responses to the words of Spencer and others like him.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution, even when it means protecting the rights of assholes like Spencer.” I get it. I really do. People like Spencer spew ideas that are blatantly inconsistent with our values as a nation, with our rights as citizens. But our own Constitution protects his rights to spew those ideas, even if we don’t like them, or if the realization of those ideas would threaten our own rights.
“… I have sworn an oath to violently oppose anyone who threatens to infringe upon my 14th Amendment rights.” Okay, I think he meant either the 15th or 19th Amendments, but chose to let that slide.
Then another commenter weighed in: “… we have a moral mandate to use violence. It might be illegal, but it’s morally correct.”
“So,” I responded, “if I saw you burning a flag and decided to run up and punch you, that would be okay?”
“No, that would be wrong and illegal. The Supreme Court recognizes that as free speech.”
At this point, I realized that I was knee deep in the swamp, but still quite bothered by the fact that people I thought to be well-educated and seemingly-intelligent could rationalize not just violating the civil rights of another, but committing a felony in the process. That such rationalization came so freely and easily to them was a matter of no small concern. That they appeared to have such a flexible interpretation of the Constitution was even more disconcerting.
I’m not advocating for or even defending Richard Spencer (or any of his ilk). Hell, I’d like to punch him, too. The same way I feel like going full Negan when I see someone burning our flag. But, years of standing behind the Constitution — and an appreciation for the consequences associated with violating the rights of others — have tempered my attitude a bit. The words “We the People” have to apply to everyone — even those we don’t agree with or particularly like — or they mean nothing at all.
As far as Spencer and others like him are concerned, we have to be satisfied with the idea that “what goes around comes around.” Karma remembers, even if we forget.