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Free Speech at My Brother’s Funeral

Res Publica

August 2012

by Jake Ewing

In my 21 years of life on this earth, I never felt pulled to the military like my brother Josh. He wanted to enter the service from a very young age, his sights always set on attending the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. He even took a post-graduate year at a prep school to improve his standardized test scores after failing to get in following high school graduation. He eventually realized his dream, and my entire family traveled to West Point for his graduation in May of 2009. He is currently a 1st Lieutenant in the United States Army, flying helicopters in Comayagua, Honduras. I love him very much.

Although he had always dreamed of attending West Point, my brother does not fit the stereotype of the dutiful and honest soldier, whose hair is as clean cut as his demeanor is uptight. Josh has always been a rule breaker, and no Cadet Honor Code could break him of that habit. This is perhaps my favorite fact about his time at West Point: In his four years there, he received over a hundred “walking hours,” a punishment given to cadets in small increments for their misdoings. Most people who hit this sought-after century mark were removed from the academy long before graduation. Josh was not, and he celebrated this fact on his last day there.

The night before his graduation, I spent the night in the cadet barracks with my brother, even though it was against the rules of the academy. Civilians were not permitted to stay in the barracks under any circumstances, but Josh saw no problem with it. The next day, after the ceremony, my mother took pictures while I held my brother – bigger in both size and age – in my arms like a fat baby as our laughter echoed across the well-ordered and dignified campus.

Memories such as these are what I use to handle the fear of my brother being stationed over 3,000 miles away in Honduras. Although he is not now, it is very likely that Josh will be stationed in an active combat area at some point. There is a chance that my brother could be killed in combat. I understand this fact. It absolutely terrifies me, but I understand it. I just genuinely hate thinking about it. What if, God forbid, my brother were to die in combat? This would undoubtedly be the lowest point of my life. I cannot imagine the grief that would befall my entire family.

The Westboro Baptist Church protests at the funerals of American soldiers, soldiers just like my brother. They hold signs that feature horrifically offensive language that is explicitly anti-American, anti-homosexual, and essentially against anything and anyone that isn’t completely concurrent with their strict beliefs. Indeed, they praise God for the deaths of American soldiers and thank him for the tragedies of September 11th. In their view, these are examples of God punishing a sinful nation. Other than Westboro’s very small congregation, it would be basically impossible to find someone who agrees with their message. It is an awful institution.

Yet Westboro utilizes the same freedom of speech that allows me and countless others to speak against them. Our country cannot function without the free exchange of ideas, even if some of those ideas are horribly distasteful by nearly all standards. To deny their right to preach hatred is to deny the right of another to preach tolerance and understanding. American society was founded on the belief that men are intelligent enough to express their individual ideas, and that these discussions will lead to the betterment of all citizens. Americans also believe that men are reasonable enough to sort through these opinions and determine what is rational and what is irrational. All opinions may be expressed, but not all opinions need to be followed.

At this moment, it is very easy for me to have a strong belief in free expression, even when that expression is hate-filled and offensive. It requires almost no effort. But claiming to be committed to something is not nearly as important as acting out of that commitment. What would happen if my dedication to Westboro’s right to say those awful things were actually put to the test?

Let’s say, for instance, that Westboro Baptist Church decides that they are going to protest outside of my brother’s funeral, as they have countless other ceremonies of fallen American soldiers. Would I still be so committed to the principle of free speech that I am so eager to uphold? Having to be face-to-face with their horrific message, watching as they celebrate the misery of my family in our darkest of times is a completely different matter. So what would I do if Westboro wanted to protest outside my brother’s funeral? Would free speech still be so important to me?

My hope is that free speech would win out over the sadness, anger, and hatred that I would feel. I would want to be a rational voice for my loved ones, reminding my bereft family that the same laws that protect Westboro’s rights protect ours. That we as a society believe that men are reasonable, even while being shown that they are not. That American soldiers like my brother fight for everyone’s right to free speech – not just people with whom we agree. That upholding free speech is a noble cause, even if that speech is sometimes used ignobly.

These are all beliefs that I hold as I write this, knowing for certain that Josh is alive and well. But if my brother’s position were to change – if he was in a coffin about to be placed into the ground, as a group from Westboro celebrated his death – I can’t promise that I would react that way at all. I know how I would want to respond. I just have no idea how I actually would react, and more than anything, I hope that I never have to find out.

Jake Ewing is a junior from Wooster, Ohio, majoring in English, Creative Writing and Spanish.

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