Let the loons marginalize themselves

Freedom of speech has its advantages, some of which may not be obvious at first glance.

When some people on Bainbridge Island marred the island’s Independence Day parade by yelling crude insults at a Marine veteran of the war in Iraq, the vast majority of the rest of us probably wished those ignoramuses had kept their opinions to themselves.

Fortunately, they didn’t keep quiet when they saw an opportunity to vent their spleen.

No doubt encouraged by the fact that we all have the right to state our political opinions without fear of being punished by our government, and probably believing that they were surrounded by like-minded people, those few proceeded to demonstrate that their existence isn’t a figment of the imagination of citizens on the right side of the political spectrum.

They showed beyond any doubt that there really are people who have such a distorted view of the world that they would publicly insult a young man for putting his life on the line in the armed forces of our country.

Having the freedom to speak our minds does more than encourage an open debate of issues which matter to our republic. It also provides many chances for those among us who hold irrational or hateful opinions to stand and be recognized.

We need to be reminded of their existence once in a while so that we have an opportunity to tell them just what we think of their boorish behavior and their irrational opinions.

Unfortunately, there are people who, when left on their own in their little cliques, will arrive at astonishing and even frightening political beliefs.

Absent a healthy public debate, the irrational and even hateful beliefs of the few could grow without notice until they threaten the well-being of our republic. Just like mushrooms, when people who are susceptible to such ideas are fed the right material and left in the dark, they can increase their numbers at a surprisingly fast rate.

Like an inoculation, the occasional outbursts of such people strengthen our political immune system by reinforcing our understanding that public debate is a vital part of a smooth-functioning republic.

Many of us think of public discussion and debate only around election times, and even then some of us become discouraged about the effectiveness of our efforts to persuade.

You may have heard people say that in any election the only realistic goal is to encourage people who already agree with your side to get out and vote. Putting any great effort into persuading others is treated as a quixotic notion.

Admittedly, there are people whose beliefs have ossified so that they cannot be persuaded to accept a different opinion, but there are also many who are willing to listen and think before deciding how to vote.

In a sense then, we should be thankful that the few loons occasionally remind the rest of us that they are still here. If we act appropriately in response to them, it can strengthen our republic by sharpening our ability to discuss all important issues among ourselves.

These helpful loons appear in various places and guises.

A few years ago, while my daughter was a student at WSU, a Holocaust denier caused quite a stir in that university town.

Being the wise father (well, OK, the bumbling but well-intentioned father), I told my daughter she should be glad that these nuts occasionally speak up.

I still think so.

When the Holocaust deniers pop up, it gives everyone, including those who previously knew little about the Holocaust, a chance to learn or be reminded of the terrible dangers inherent in a totalitarian socialist government.

Driven by hatred of a group of people, whether defined by race, socio-economic class, or religious and cultural heritage, such governments can be used to accomplish horrifying acts of violence.

Flag burning serves a similar purpose. There is perhaps nothing people could do, short of criminal acts, which could more quickly and conclusively identify them as loons who do not support our form of government.

Trying to outlaw the act of burning our American flag as a form of protest is wrongheaded. We need to know who these people are, so that we can appropriately discount their stated opinions and beliefs.

While we in South Kitsap don’t seem to attract the white supremacist pamphleteers to the extent that other parts of the county do, we can pay attention to their occasional propaganda efforts for much the same reasons.

We need to know that those people are among us, and we need to condemn them regularly.

Freedom of speech is perhaps the only way for truth to triumph regularly, but only if all sides of an issue are publicly debated.

So, if you get the chance, thank the loons for being so helpful. Then give them the verbal thrashing they so richly deserve.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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