'Protesters guilty of acting only on their beliefs," read the headline atop a Bill Johnson column in last Friday's Rocky Mountain News. That headline wasted no time getting the story wrong. Johnson glorified anti-war protesters who held a 1960s-style sit-in in Sen. Ken Salazar's Denver office.
They spent the afternoon reading from a list of military and civilian dead in Iraq, ringing a bell after each name. Only at closing time, when they refused to leave, were the police called. They were arrested, tried and convicted. Had they acted legally on their beliefs, they'd have had no trouble with the law. A jury of their peers found them guilty of simple trespassing - their beliefs weren't on trial.
The protesters, Johnson tells us, had repeatedly called, written and e-mailed Salazar demanding that we cut off funding for the war - now! Three weeks earlier, they had been granted a meeting with the senator's aide. Although Salazar is a critic of Bush on Iraq, he hasn't been critical enough to suit this bunch. So they showed up at his Denver offices on Feb. 21, demanding to see him. He wasn't there. They wouldn't leave. The rest is history.
Johnson seems to believe that the Salazar Seven, as they call themselves, are a shining example of democracy at work. Wrong again. That's not democracy. Democracy is when you elect someone to represent you. If his performance in office is unsatisfactory to a majority of voters, democracy is when they replace him at the next election with someone else.
In the meantime, the Constitution protects the right of the people to complain, but not by trespassing or otherwise breaking the law. That's civil disobedience. And it comes in different varieties. Yes, when budding American revolutionaries dumped tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, protesting taxation without representation, they were breaking the law. But they resorted to this behavior because they had no political recourse under the British king.
Americans may have grown weary of our venture in Iraq but most are not yet ready to cut and run, throwing away all we've invested. Salazar's ambivalence is a reflection of that sentiment, as is the reluctance of majority Democrats in Congress to cut off funding of the troops.
Unlike our revolutionary forebears, the Salazar Seven have had ample political recourse. They just don't like the result. As Eric Hoffer famously observed, "A dissenting minority feels free only when it can impose its will on the majority; what it abominates most is the dissent of the majority."
The sincerity of political activists isn't sufficient justification to anoint their cause or actions with legitimacy or nobility. Ku Klux Klan racists are also convinced of their righteousness when engaging in hateful theatrics or lawlessness. Would Johnson commend their commitment and pronounce them "guilty only of acting on their beliefs"? Of course not, because he disagrees with their beliefs and behavior.
The Salazar Seven are merely advocates of a viewpoint, one with which Salazar and most others disagree. They have no license to break the law. One of them offered the childish platitude that "Violence does not stop violence." Really? Tell that to World War II vets who defeated Hitler. Or a woman who put a bullet between the eyes of a rapist.
Moving from the preposterous to the disrespectful, Johnson rattled off the names of several American soldiers killed in action in Iraq and then declared that the three Salazar protesters found guilty of trespassing (the other four copped a plea), "are just as heroic." He put them on equal footing as "men and women who put everything on the line in service to our freedoms."
Put everything on the line? The soldiers gave their lives while these public nuisances were fined 50 bucks each, which was promptly suspended by the judge along with their court costs. What sacrifice.