Monthly Archives: April 2014

Happy Earth Day 2014!


“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Carl Sagan, “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”


Earth Day 2014.


Filed under News

Lord Above


As this Easter weekend comes to an end, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite paintings of Jesus, the Christ: Salvador Dalí’s “Christ of Saint John of the Cross.” Produced in 1951, it is a perfect example of surrealism. But, it also presents Jesus at perhaps his most vulnerable. The viewer sees him from God’s vantage point; making the Savior look as humble and helpless as the average person.

Dalí based his delineation on a drawing by a 16th century Spanish friar, John of the Cross.  As befitting his eccentric personality, Dalí had a perfect explanation for his inspiration. “In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream,’ in which I saw this image in color and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense. I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!”

To create the unique angle and obtain a true sense of how the human male form would look, Dalí enlisted Hollywood stuntman Russell Saunders to be suspended from an overhead galley. The painting first appeared in public at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, Scotland on June 23, 1952 – and became an instant source of controversy. Many considered it blasphemous, even though a traditional crucifix can be turned over and produce the same view. Others saw it as just plain tacky.

Dalí, who died in 1989, had a simple understanding of his own art. “Surrealism is destructive. But, it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.”

The crucifixion sketch by St. John of the Cross – the inspiration for Dalí’s drawing.

The crucifixion sketch by St. John of the Cross – the inspiration for Dalí’s drawing.


Filed under Classics

West Rising

Remains of the West Fertilizer Plant are at the upper right.

Remains of the West Fertilizer Plant are at the upper right.

Last Thursday, the 17th, marked a horrific first anniversary for the tiny Texas community of West, just south of Dallas / Fort Worth. On April 17, 2013, the town experienced a cataclysmic event that almost destroyed it. A fire at a fertilizer plant late in the day exploded, killing 15 people (mostly volunteer firefighters) and injuring more than 200 others. The physical impact was unbelievable. The blast registered as a 2.1-magnitude earthquake on seismographs in the region and could be felt up to 50 miles away. It carved a 10-foot crater in the ground beneath it. Windows up to 7 miles away were blown out. It obliterated two of its three schools and its one apartment complex. Several other structures were damaged so badly they had to be torn down.

As with any disaster, the psychological and emotional repercussions are immeasurable – and often irreparable. Small towns are usually like large families; yes, everybody seems to know your name and know your business. That sense of closeness frightens some people, yet it makes the town loveable.

But, amidst the trauma of recovery, West has entered into the lexicon of environmental protectionism and has become an unnecessary pawn in the battle between federal oversight and state independence. What happened in West last year is a perfect example of extreme business deregulation. It’s the result of corporate malfeasance and an entrenched conservative mindset that only companies understand what’s best for them and their communities and therefore, should be permitted to do whatever they please.

The West Fertilizer Company had supplied fertilizer and other chemicals to area farmers since its founding in 1962. Last year, just weeks before the explosion, Adair Grain bought the facility. The plant had last been inspected in 1985, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the plant for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia and fined it $30. In 2006, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – the equivalent of a guard rabbit in a wolf pack – investigated complaints of ammonia smells originating from the plant and cited the owners for not having obtained proper permits for its two storage tanks containing that ubiquitous anhydrous ammonia. That same year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined West Fertilizer $2,300 for a variety of problems, including failure to file a risk management plan. Just ten months before the explosion, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an affiliate of the U.S. Department of Transportation, fined the company $5,250 for violations regarding storage of – you guessed it – anhydrous ammonia.

Since the EPA and the DOT are government agencies, they have few friends in Texas’ business world or in the state legislature. Texas’ pro-business stance is firmly carved into its culture. The state weathered the recent economic downturn better than most others and has produced more jobs and opened more businesses within the past year alone than any other state. In the months preceding the West explosion, Governor Rick Perry – still recovering from his pathetic 2012 presidential bid – dared to storm into the state of California and promote the “Lone Star State” as a more ideal place for business.

“Building a business is tough, but I hear building a business in California is next to impossible,” Perry said in a 30-second radio ad that ran in key California markets.  “This is Texas Governor Rick Perry, and I have a message for California businesses. Come check out Texas. There are plenty of reasons Texas has been named the best state for doing business for eight years running. Visit and see why our low taxes, sensible regulations and fair legal system are just the thing to get your business moving to Texas.”

He’s right to an extent. California, like Texas, is one of the world’s largest economies. Both states could probably secede (something Perry himself actually propositioned) and survive comfortably. But, California would have a tougher time. From a business perspective, it is the opposite of Texas: highly regulated and highly taxed. A close friend of mine tried to make California his home after leaving the U.S. Navy in the early 1990s, but had to leave, he told me, before he “ended up out on the streets.” A long-time acquaintance in Oakland once asked about the cost of living in Texas. Several years ago a cousin once told her mother (my aunt) that she wouldn’t mind moving to Texas if it wasn’t for the intense heat we experience during summer. She lived in upstate New York at the time and had tired of the heavy state income tax.

Perry’s efforts started paying off almost immediately. Texas commerce officials began receiving calls from California business owners, including some large companies, about details of relocating. California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom told a local radio station that Perry is “getting in our heads.” It’s certainly not just Perry’s charming accent; that lure of low taxes and limited regulations is too much to resist.

Then, came West.

An aerial view of the smoke plume on April 17, 2013.

An aerial view of the smoke plume on April 17, 2013.

Chemicals are dangerous things. There’s a reason a traditional skull-and-crossbones emblem is placed on containers holding them. After the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, the U.S. federal government tried to impose strict regulations on the sale and purchase of large quantities of ammonium nitrate – the key substance in the catastrophe. But, the efforts have been stymied – again by strong business interests that blame misuse and not the chemical itself. It’s similar to arguments by the National Rifle Association that further gun regulation won’t stop violent, gun-related crimes. In other words, guns don’t kill; people do. True, indeed. But, regulation addresses individuals who use said products. Again, regulation is a vile word in the business community. Among conservatives – the same ones who want to tell same-sex couples they can’t get married – regulation is tantamount to a deadly sin.

Intense deregulation has created some of the worst financial crises in U.S. history. After World War I (then called the “Great War”), a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress forced through legislation that allowed the financial industry to engage in bold new practices, such as “over-speculation.” President Woodrow Wilson seemed unable to stop it, especially after suffering a debilitating stroke in September of 1919 (a fact that remained hidden until long after his death five years later). But, while the irreverent behavior made the 1920s explosively lucrative for the nation, it ultimately led to the 1929 stock market crash and subsequently, the Great Depression.

The 1982 Garn-St. Germain Act allowed for almost complete deregulation of the savings and loans sector; they were allowed to partake in risky business practices, such as issuing credit cards and investing credit cards and investment in non-residential real estate loans. Many economic experts conclude the Act culminated in the savings and loans collapse that spilled into the early 1990s. Millions of dollars and millions of jobs were lost. At the turn of this last century, further deregulation of banking commerce, along with housing, incited the worst recessionary period since the Great Depression.

Extreme deregulation, however, can also be deadly. Beginning in the 1700s, the Industrial Revolution pushed many nations into a state of modernity they never expected. Steam engines, railroads and motorized vehicles slowly worked their way into both urban and rural areas. Such developments made life simpler for many people – and produced incredible fortunes for a handful of individuals and their families. But, it also created a cavernous divide among those at the very top who frolicked in their wealth and those who slaved (sometimes died) to create it for them. By the 1890s, the Anarchist Movement had arisen in Europe and, by 1900, had arrived in the U.S. When average workers called for better wages and safer conditions, the titans of industry literally scoffed at them.

In 1896, William McKinley and his fellow Republicans took advantage of the 1893 recession (then the worst in U.S. history) to advance their pro-business and protectionist agenda. It certainly didn’t hurt that he received financial support from wealthy industrialist Marcus Alonzo Hanna, a fellow Ohioan. McKinley’s 1897 inauguration was the first to be photographed with moving film. That same year the U.S. fully recovered from the economic downturn, so McKinley easily won a second term in 1900.

Before then, however, his Vice-President, Garret Hobart, died in November of 1899. During his 1900 campaign, McKinley selected a curious and intriguing character as his running mate: Theodore Roosevelt. A rising star in the Republican Party at the time, Roosevelt is best remembered for his passion for land and nature conservation. But, much to the chagrin of his fellow politicians, Roosevelt also supported worker rights and safety standards in the workplace. Ironically, he got his chance to push that agenda after McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by León Czolgosz, a U.S. citizen born of Polish-Russian immigrants. Czolgosz was also an anarchist and had lost his job at a wire mill; where (according to various claims) he suffered a mental breakdown due to the horrific working conditions.

Anti-trust laws had come into place by the time Roosevelt took office. But, he brought it to new levels; thus earning him a reputation as a “trust buster.” It didn’t faze him. Long before he attained the presidency, Roosevelt had criticized the affluent in America. The continued exploitation of the public could result in violent uprisings that would, in effect, destroy the economy. He also condemned the arrogance of industry heads – the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers, etc. – who apparently believed they were above the government. Some things don’t change, do they?

But, while American workers continued to get hurt and die on the job, the public as a whole didn’t realize how bad things were until the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. In less than 20 minutes, a fire engulfed three of the building’s floors and killed 146 people – mostly immigrant women and girls. The sight of dead bodies both inside the factory and on the sidewalks outside (where several had jumped as a desperate attempt to escape the flames) was too much to bear. Cries for workplace safety reforms quickly rose up, and – just as quickly – the city and the state of New York responded with strict regulations. For the first time in U.S. history, fire codes were enacted, including requirements for designated exits and forbidding locked doors during working hours. (Locked doors were one of the primary reasons so many people died in the Triangle fire.) As usual, corporate executives complained; denouncing the new regulations as anti-business and detrimental to the country’s economic welfare. They dismissed the injuries and deaths as another cost of doing business.

The struggles for workers didn’t end there. Companies continued to find creative ways to ignore safety compliance demands.  Brutal working conditions and low pay in California’s crop fields were what compelled César Chávez to lead the United Farm Workers strike in 1965; a strike that lasted five years and almost bankrupted California’s agricultural sector. The accidental deaths of two sanitation workers in a trash compactor are what led Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis in 1968.

Mining has always been a chief target for workplace safety regulations. In 1977, the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Admittedly, mining is an inherently dangerous profession; there are only a finite number of safety precautions that can be taken to ensure all the workers return home. But, beginning in the 1990s, mine owners pushed for relaxation of those standards; using the old conservative mantra that they stifle productivity. Under the administration of George W. Bush, they achieved much of what they demanded. Safety procedures that had been in place for years were either overturned or greatly reduced. For example, in 2001, the Bush Administration killed a proposal to test the viability of constructing conveyor belts of fire-resistant materials. Mining accidents and fatalities began to climb almost immediately, starting with the 2002 Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania. No one died, but 9 men were trapped in the mine for 3 days.

Most recently, in 2010, 29 miners perished at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia; the deadliest mining disaster in the U.S. in nearly 40 years. Some had survived the initial explosion, but suffocated to death when they became trapped. The mine’s owner, Massey Energy, had deliberately thwarted any attempts to enforce existing safety regulations, or impose new ones. In 2009, the government fined Massey $382,000 for “serious” violations of the 1977 Mine Act. Between then and the Upper Big Branch calamity, Massey received 57 additional safety infractions. None of that seemed to upset then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship. He sold his Massey stock for $21.24 million shortly afterwards and retired from Massey in December 2010. The following year he established another coal mining operation, McCoy Coal Group, in Kentucky. His arrogance and self-righteous demeanor shined brightly when he supported Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid and threatened his employees that, if President Obama won another term, they’d all lose their jobs. He actually ordered them to vote for Romney, a direct violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Just two weeks after the Upper Big Branch calamity, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of México exploded, killing 11 men and injuring 17 others. In the darkness, several workers were forced to hurtle themselves into the water several feet below. The rig burned for 36 hours before collapsing into the Gulf; subsequently pouring more than 200 million gallons of crude oil for nearly three months before it was capped. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The sight of such a massive structure wrapped in flames was bad enough. But, flippant statements by Tony Hayward, then-CEO of BP (formerly British Petroleum), which operated the rig, once again proved the disconnected nature of corporate executives. Hayward initially deemed the spill “relatively tiny” in comparison to the “very big ocean.” Later, he bemoaned the extent of the crisis by saying he wanted “my life back.” He resigned in July of 2010, just as the spill was sealed off.

BP incurred $40 billion in fines and cleanup costs associated with the spill. But, it wasn’t the first. Just four years earlier, a BP facility had been the catalyst for a catastrophic oil spill in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. Some 212,000 gallons of crude oil had spilled from company pipelines on the North Slope. In May of 2011, BP paid out $25 million to settle the various claims against them.

In each case, the spills shouldn’t have come as an absolute surprise. Workers in Prudhoe Bay and on Deepwater had complained about various leaks and faulty equipment for weeks before the respective incidents. In each location, no one in authority paid much attention. But, just after some of the Deepwater employees made it to dry land, company officials started shoving papers in front of them to sign; documents that would absolve both BP and Transocean (the rig’s owner) of any liability. Fortunately, none of them fell for the trap.

In a way, I’ve seen the effects of irresponsible industrial business up close. For most of the summer of 2003, I traveled weekly to a small community in West Texas (not to be confused with the town of West) where I processed documentation for a defunct electrical firm. (Although it’s now a matter of public record, I still won’t mention any company names.) The business had built and installed electrical transformers for decades. No one ever thought much about the large trash-can-looking contraptions, until scientists realized the polychlorinated biphenyl-saturated oil used to insulate them was extremely dangerous. PCB has been linked to a host of ailments; its odorless and tasteless qualities making it virtually undetectable in the water and soil around the town where it had leaked. It was one reason why the local water bore a salty taste; a discomforting fact I learned quickly. I was even concerned about taking a shower and resorted to giving my then-year-old puppy cold bottled water I bought from a hotel vending machine. One woman with the local TCEQ office told me in confidence that her superiors in Austin had the toughest time reaching the community’s state and U.S. congressional representatives, both Republicans. “They just won’t return their calls,” she whispered.

I had to visit the site a number of times to procure documents and started to wonder if my life was in danger from just walking to and from the facility. The transformers sat untouched and rusting in a large, fenced-in area; where the sharp West Texas winds could pick up their PCB coatings and hurtle them anywhere.

A seismograph reading from Hockley, Texas, 142 miles (228 km) south-east of West, charts the temblor caused by the plant explosion.

A seismograph reading from Hockley, Texas, 142 miles (228 km) south-east of West, charts the temblor caused by the plant explosion.

Meanwhile, West continues recovering with the help of both state and federal money, as well as through the incredible outpouring of support from average citizens across the country; people who understand the frailties of human existence. Last year OSHA fined Adair Grain a paltry $118,300. The company had only $1 million in insurance and has not rebuilt. Two days after the disaster, Donald Adair, the company’s president, issued a formal statement of condolence. The town of West is now suing Adair.

But, even now, a year later, state officials are reticent to establish more regulations for the storage of dangerous chemicals. Texas is among a handful of states that doesn’t have a uniform fire safety code. It only requires counties with a population of at least 250,000 (and those bordering one) to have such codes. Still, a number of facilities across the state keep their highly volatile supplies of fertilizer and other chemicals housed within unstable structures, such as wooden barns and tool sheds. Adair didn’t have an automatic sprinkler in its fertilizer housing unit, but the company had installed security cameras to deter would-be methamphetamine dealers from stealing their product. The cause of the fire is still unknown, although officials believe a faulty golf cart may have sparked it. People will continue working in these places because many have no other means of support. They have only two choices: work in unsafe conditions, or go hungry and become homeless. What would you do?

A cell phone video captured the terror of the West explosion.


Filed under Essays

Happy Easter!


“A man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”

Mahatma Gandhi

“Easter says you can put truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there.”

Samuel Logan Brengle

Leave a comment

Filed under News

In Memoriam – Gabriel García Márquez: 1927 – 2014


“The uncertain old man whose real existence was the simplest of his enigmas.” – Gabriel García Márquez.

Gabriel García Márquez.

1 Comment

Filed under News

A Half Century and Still Running

Mustang 071

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Ford Mustang – the iconic vehicle that ushered in the modern age of the muscle car. Apparently, owning a Mustang is like chocolate, orchids, fine wine and back massages: once is never enough.

Admittedly, I’m not a Mustang fan, even though I have a model replica of the 1968 Steve McQueen “Bullitt” car. Few vehicles have been so heavily marketed in advance of their official introduction, or have created such an enduring mystique. It’s hard to imagine now, but at the time, the car cost $2,500. But, the advertising paid off: Ford sold 22,000 Mustangs the first day. By the end of 1964, they had sold 263,434.

Available in only two models – the coupe and the convertible – it had a 210-horsepower (no pun intended, 6-cylinder, V-8 engine, wall-to-wall carpeting, bucket front seats, a floor-mounted gear shift – all in about 180 inches in length. It’s definitely an icon, and even though, it’s endured a number of metamorphoses over the past half century, the Mustang is still – well – running strong.

A Mustang Prototype from 1962.

A Mustang Prototype from 1962.

1 Comment

Filed under Classics

Boston Still Standing

The sun rose over Boston on April 16, 2013, as it has every day since.

The sun rose over Boston on April 16, 2013, as it has every day since.

Today marks the first anniversary of the Boston bombing; a trite terrorist attack that killed three bystanders and injured more than 200 others. I say trite because the two foreign-born brothers who targeted unsuspecting runners and observers at Boston’s annual marathon – held every year on Patriot’s Day – didn’t achieve their intended goal: to bring down a large metropolitan area. Like London in 2005, Madrid in 2004, New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001 and Oklahoma City in 1995, it just couldn’t be done.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had just about everything they wanted, when their family brought them here in 2002 from Dagestan. They grew up in a middle class environment in one of America’s oldest and most revered cities. Tamerlan was training to be an Olympic boxer, and Dzhokhar was an ordinary college boy. Then, something happened with them. The older brother, in particular, suddenly realized he didn’t like the American military’s treatment of Muslims overseas. Thus, he decided to take action: bomb his adopted home city. Now, he’s dead, and his brother is in federal custody after barely surviving a battle with police last year.

I understand that people don’t like U.S. foreign policy. Our attempts at colonialism and, later, with democratic influence has always led to anger and resentment. Yes, I get that. I really do. But, people who become enraged with a nation’s outrageous behavior abroad always forget one thing: it’s not the fault of the common citizen. The Iraqi government, for example, committed genocide in Kurdistan – not the average Iraqi.

Terrorists also underestimate the goodness and resilience of humanity. Did the Tsarnaev brothers really think Boston would collapse after they attacked the marathon? There are only a handful of things that can take out such a large city; earthquakes and meteors being the most likely candidates. But, two punks who turn on their neighbors? Hell, no! Hitler almost inadvertently destroyed his beloved Germany during World War II. Mussolini practically did the same with Italy. Both ended up dying alongside their mistresses; Hitler in his underground bunker, and Mussolini hanged and burned.

People die and get hurt in terrorist acts. They scream, cry and vow revenge. But, as a society, we always manage to gather ourselves together and move forward. So, all the hate and anger goes for nothing. It wrecks some lives and burns a few cars. Then – people move on with their lives. What’s it worth then? Why the desire to destroy someone and something that may have absolutely nothing to do with the hostilities?

When Europeans first began populating the Western Hemisphere, they viewed the indigenous people as little more than two-legged forms of the local wildlife. The Europeans brought their guns, diseases and self-righteous determination and subsequently tried to decimate entire masses of individuals who had occupied this region for millennia. They did wipe out large communities and deliberately killed thousands of people, often at once. But, they didn’t win. They couldn’t destroy everyone. Indian people survived.

It’s a little like the Boston bombing case. All the fury and holy indignation just didn’t succeed. It never does. That’s not the way humanity works.


Filed under Essays

Lost and Found Again


The ongoing search for Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370 covers most of each news day across the globe. As sad and frustrating as it is, it’s still better than coverage of the British royal family and their newest addition. People keep asking how such a large aircraft with so many people aboard could simply vanish. Well, there’s a relatively logical explanation – we just haven’t found out yet. But, astute readers, especially those with a fetish for the mysterious, have noted somewhat ominous similarities between the real nightmare of MH 370 and James Hilton’s classic novel “Lost Horizon.” Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1933 by MacMillan, the story involves a group of travelers whose plane crash-lands in the Himalayas. As they struggle to survive, they encounter a Tibetan monastery called “Shangri-La” and become enamored with its wonderfully philosophical residents. The interaction between the two groups makes the foreigners realize life contains more than material wealth and petty arguments.

One Shangri-La native opines, “We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And, I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.”

That doesn’t describe most Americans, including the Chief, but it’s a good conviction to follow. Whatever becomes of Flight MH 370, one thing remains eternal in the minds of dreamers: while getting lost may be frightening, there’ll always be that deep-seated desire to get lost on purpose and put the past behind us.

A small clip from the 1937 film version of “Lost Horizon.”

James Hilton Society.


Filed under Classics



On March 19, Fred Phelps, the patriarch and founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas passed away at age 84. Goodbye and good riddance. I’m glad the old bastard is dead. It would be even better if the rest of his family could join him, but their time will come, too.

Westboro gained notoriety in the early 1990s as a rabidly anti-abortion and homophobic clan. They tested the limits of free speech with the simple act of protesting – a test that would take them to the U.S. Supreme Court. Westboro’s roots date back to 1931, when it originated as a branch of Topeka’s East Side Baptist Church. In 1955, however, Phelps broke ties with East Side and established Westboro.

As a biblical literalist, Fred Phelps held a very narrow view of the world and believed anyone who strayed from it was hell-bound. But, he wasn’t just some cantankerous loudmouth who adored media attention. He was a convicted criminal. In 1947, Phelps was a student at Bob Jones University, when he and some fellow pupils traveled to Vernal, Utah to try converting people from Mormonism. After Phelps gave a speech condemning the Mormon religion, a young man in the audience asked him a theological question. Phelps apparently didn’t know the answer and – as idiots are often wont to do – physically attacked the man. The scuffle almost incited a riot. In 1951, Phelps found himself in Pasadena, California, where he led a protest to make kissing in public a criminal felony. When a police officer told him he didn’t have permission to protest, the then-21-year-old assaulted him.

Phelps actually had a good start in life. He was a Boy Scout who earned the coveted Eagle Scout Award. He graduated from high school at age 16 and was admitted to the United State Military Academy in West Point New York. While there, however, he attended a Methodist revival meeting and decided to become a minister instead of attending West Point.

Phelps and his wife, Margie, met at the Arizona Bible Institute in 1951 and married the following year. They eventually had 13 children. Phelps went on to earn a law degree from Washburn University in 1962 and, ironically, developed a reputation as a civil rights lawyer. He even won an award from the NAACP for his work on civil rights cases. But, his career began to disintegrate in 1979, when he was disbarred in the state of Kansas for perjury. He spiraled further out of control with complaints of harassment, witness intimidation and more false testimonies, until 1987, when he was permanently forbidden from practicing law.

In 1991, WBC began its notorious and never-ending anti-gay crusade by protesting at Topeka’s Gage Park; claiming it was a hotbed of homosexual activity. Phelps and his gang seemed to cross a fragile line, however, when they began picketing at the funerals of AIDS victims around the same time. They bought into the right-wing evangelical mantra that AIDS was God’s condemnation of the homosexual lifestyle. Even those who staunchly opposed homosexuality found funeral protests a bit much. WBC harassed gay-oriented businesses, women’s clinics and other institutions they despised by repeatedly faxing – and later emailing – them obscenity-laced messages. Every time someone complained, WBC cited the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees – among other things – the right to free speech.

For some free speech advocates, the WBC tactics raised troubling questions. Free speech is a critical element of a truly democratic society. The U.S. and other developed nations pride themselves on the right of their citizens to speak out; no matter how offensive the verbiage may be. The late comic Lenny Bruce pushed the bounds of free speech with racially-tinged topics and foul language during his live standup routines in the 1950s. He was arrested and fined on occasion.

In 1977, free speech took a darker turn, when a neo-Nazi group planned a march in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie wasn’t a random selection. After World War II, the Chicago suburb had become home to several survivors of Europe’s Nazi death camps. At the time, about 40,500 of the city’s estimated 70,000 residents were Jewish. To them, the sight of people proudly waving the Nazi swastika was a painful reminder of one of the 20th century’s worst periods. Led by Frank Collin, the neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Party of America, applied for a permit to march on May 1, 1977. Concerned about the antagonism such an event would generate, the Skokie Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance requiring marchers to post a $350,000 insurance bond. NSPA sued, stating that the ordinance violated the Constitution’s First Amendment. The case made it to the Illinois Supreme Court, which upheld the Skokie bond resolution. NSPA pursued the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned it, noting that free speech covered even hate speech.

Free speech came under review again in 1984, when Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas. He was protesting the policies of President Ronald Reagan, which subsequently led to his arrest on charges that he violated a Texas statute preventing the desecration of venerable objects, such as the U.S. flag. Johnson sued, claiming the Texas law violated his free speech rights. The case landed at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989, which ruled in his favor. At the time, I worked for a bank in downtown Dallas and, on my way to lunch one afternoon, encountered a group of patriotic young men who were, oddly enough, protesting the Supreme Court’s decision. They were some kind of ROTC-type group; attired in suits and banging drums to the tune of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” They were also gathering signatures for a petition to the Supreme Court, hoping somehow to get the decision reversed. I signed it, but thought about it later. Can free speech be so limited?

Fred Phelps, his family and their supporters were always on a mission. They hated everyone and protested everywhere. They believed strongly that the United States had a one-way ticket to the “Dark Side” because of its tolerance of abortion, adultery, homosexuality, non-Christian theologies and other vices. In their view, each natural- or human-made catastrophe was a sign of God’s wrath upon America. From such horrors as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to seemingly random events, like the 2003 nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island, Westboro claimed God was sending an omen.

Their hatred reached a putrid climax when they began picketing at the funerals of military personnel killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Along with carrying their regular “God Hates Fags” signs (that’s actually the name of their web site), they also bore placards with such terms as “Thank God for I.E.D.s (improved explosive devices)” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Singing “God Damn America,” while dragging the U.S. flag on the ground, Westboro touched nerves of raw pain for the families of the dead. In 2006, Westboro made their way to Maryland to picket at the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who had been killed in Iraq. Snyder’s father, Albert, stated he couldn’t tell what was emblazoned on the group’s placards, but learned about it from later news reports. Albert Snyder sued, claiming Westboro’s actions caused him great emotional distress. Phelps countered naturally that his church was merely exercising its free speech rights. But, a Maryland court agreed with Snyder and granted him a $10.9 million judgment against Phelps. Phelps appealed and got the decision reversed. Snyder pursued the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Westboro.

I see one major problem with the Snyder case. The family sued for emotional distress, which is immeasurable. The case, as I saw it, centered on harassment, slander and stalking. WBC placed Matthew Snyder’s Marine Corps portrait on its web site juxtapositioned alongside various slurs like “fag” and “murderer.” They also traveled all the way to Maryland from Kansas for the sole purpose of picketing his funeral. But, the Snyder family focused on the emotional distress issue, instead of stalking and slander, which aren’t protected by free speech. Therefore, I can actually understand why the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro.

“Let me put this in more common vernacular,” Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of Fred’s daughters, told a TV reporter during another picket. “He (Albert Snyder) got his feelings hurt.” She went on to explain that Westboro had no regard for the Snyder family’s “feelings.” I’m sure it’s mutual.

Six of Fred’s children, including Shirley, are lawyers. In fact, Shirley Phelps-Roper argued their case before the Supreme Court, which is highly unusual. Generally, litigants before the Court don’t present their own cases.

Four of Fred’s children, including his oldest son Nate, abandoned their family, which essentially prompted their excommunication from Westboro. I’m quite certain that didn’t hurt their feelings. When the Snyder case arose, Nate Phelps, an atheist, went public and denounced his family’s antics, calling the funeral protests “evil.” But, in a television interview, he also made a stunning accusation: his father had often beaten his mother, as well as him and his siblings. No one at Westboro validated his claims. But, that should surprise no one. Some of the most devoutly religious people are also among the most physically abusive. They use their religion to justify the violence.

I’ve always wondered if someone would put a bullet through the heads of Phelps or one his brood. People have slung rocks at them, and Phelps even got sprayed with mace during one protest at a gay rights march. WBC maintains a hefty travel account to support their activities; money that would be better spent, for example, funding education or feeding homeless people. But, just as you can’t tell people what to do with their money, you really can’t tell them how to practice free speech.

I sincerely hope Fred Phelps suffered a long and painful demise. I’m not religious – in the traditional sense – but I am spiritual and believe in an afterlife of some sort. I envision Phelps encountering the souls of all the people whose funerals he protested at or whose tragic deaths he celebrated on his voyage into the netherworld. I can see them waving with gentle smiles, as he descends into the darkness. The right to free speech is sacred to most freedom-loving people. But, it doesn’t guarantee a place on the lap of whatever god you worship.

Westboro gets run out of Moore, Oklahoma.


Filed under Essays