Archive for Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Publisher’s memo: Acting with dignity in difficult times

October 26, 2005

Every time a group of young American soldiers was killed in Iraq, I held my breath. I didn't want to see "Tonganoxie" listed as a hometown. I didn't want one of the soldiers who had given their lives in the war -- 2,000 of them, as of Tuesday -- to be one of ours.

But last week, we in Tonganoxie received the awful news that none of us wanted, the awful news that many of us had dreaded: A Tonganoxie boy had been killed by sniper fire in Mosul, Iraq.

As Tonganoxie residents began working their way through this awful news, word reached the community that members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church -- long known for targeting homosexuals -- would bring their ugly protest to town. The Topeka church's members decided they would picket a Friday evening ceremony at Beatty Field, where Army Spc. Lucas Frantz's high school football jersey bearing No. 69 would be retired.

They came.

And although they tried to create a spectacle, they largely were ignored.

And now, they're coming back.

The church's picketers again will visit Tonganoxie on Thursday, this time to Frantz's funeral. The group will gather at noon at our beautiful Veterans of Foreign Wars Park, where the service will be held. They will hold up signs of hate. And they likely will shout venomous language.

And like last Friday night, law enforcement officers will be ready to keep order. And it appears that members of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association will act as a buffer between the protesters and those of us saying goodbye to a hometown soldier, much as those motorcyle riders did on Friday.

On Monday, Tonganoxie Mayor Dave Taylor commended the work of local police officers and other law officers who handled security at Beatty Field.

"I'm proud of the young people in this town, the kids in school, who showed the kind of first-class citizens they are," the mayor said. "There wasn't any trouble."

The mayor has every reason to be proud of how Tonganoxie conducted itself Friday night. And while it will be difficult, the community on Thursday again will be asked to keep the calm, to turn the other cheek and to be tolerant.

It certainly won't be easy. But it is necessary.

Even for the mayor, it's going to be difficult.

"I think these people were way out of line when they demonstrated the way they did," he said. ''... I believe they crossed the line on this. And I believe the citizens of this town showed them that they did cross the line on this."

On Thursday, the Westboro Church members will cross the line again.

And while I've been told that it only feeds the fire to write about them, I feel compelled to. It's almost impossible not to express an opinion.

I would not think of speaking against Westboro Church members' rights to free speech. For if they don't have that right -- as distasteful as their actions and words may be -- none of us has a right to speak out for what we believe.

But as I think about the church members coming to Frantz's funeral, I also cannot help but think about another funeral they attended -- a service for Matthew Shepard, a young homosexual who was beaten and left to die outside Laramie, Wyo. I think about a young woman -- also gay -- who was a friend of Matthew Shepard's and how she handled Fred Phelps' presence at Shepard's funeral service.

According to "The Laramie Project," a play about the town's reaction to Shepard's death written by Moses Kaufman, the young woman and a group of friends donned large wings and surrounded Phelps and his protesters.

Knowing her angels would absorb the brunt of the protesters' angry shouts, she gave each of her angels ear plugs.

On Thursday, Tonganoxie must turn a deaf ear to the protesters at Lucas Frantz's service.

We must say our goodbyes to Lucas. We must say our thank yous to Lucas. And we must find comfort for ourselves and for Lucas' family.

And we must do so with dignity.

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