As Chattanooga tries to make sense from the senseless violence of last week, many are still seeking that voice that will bring closure — a transcendent moment that will move us forward in resolve to put anger and bias and vengefulness behind us.
We've seen some glimmers: The ribbon of flags and mementos brought by people to honor five dead servicemen killed by a homegrown gunman now investigated as a terrorist. The neighbors of that now-dead shooter, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, caring for the family's home and lawn while the young man's parents and sisters grieve and cooperate with police. Certainly a high point was the more than 1,000 people who came to an interfaith memorial service Friday night at Olivet Baptist Church to give voice to the new "We are Chattanooga strong" mantra. Another high point was Gov. Bill Haslam quoting the Old Testament and praying that Chattanooga "would be a city that answers hate with love." A standing ovation to applaud dozens of Muslims after they stood in support of this city and in allegiance to this nation was an important moment, too.
But we're a long way from being out of the woods.
In pockets, hate came back to Chattanooga over the weekend and on Monday — sometimes in places we should least expect it, like our public defender's office and a church that preaches hate while misidentifying its message as Christian.
The so-called church, Westboro Baptist headquartered in Topeka, Kan., and known for its offensive slogans, plans to picket Chattanooga memorials and funerals, claiming in a tweet: "Hey #Chattanooga! newsflash!! God sent the shooter. His opening payback for SSM (same-sex marriage) with so much more to come " The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Westboro "the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America." That's all the ink they'll get here, and it's more than they deserve.
Frankly, more concerning are the Facebook posts over the weekend of our elected Hamilton County Public Defender Steve Smith. In case you missed the quote in Sunday's paper and you aren't watching his Facebook page, here it is:
"I just can't agree that the best we can do is pray for Chattanooga," Smith posted in a running rant. "I think the best we can do is ascertain who our enemies are, whether foreign or domestic, and then kill them. That is what CPD did. What will Barack Hussein Obama do?"
On Monday Smith was unapologetic, saying the comments were "made in the context of griping about the president and our intelligence services, and it was put into a story about how Muslims feel afraid here. I think you guys just needed a boogieman and I happened to be the guy that fit the bill. I don't think I said anything denigrating Muslims. I talked about our enemies and not knowing who they are. I think our government needs to figure that out. I don't think I've done anything wrong."
While being a public official doesn't strip Smith or others of their right to free speech, Smith as public defender is tasked with representing any individual a judge appoints to them unless they have a conflict. Looking at the post, Smith and other attorneys under him could reasonably be seen as having a conflict in representing a Muslim. And taking that one step further, the post could possibly result in appeals and mistrials.
At least one local attorney is justifiably disturbed. David C. Veazey said Monday that he is calling for Smith to resign.
Veazey said when he first read the quote in the paper, "I looked on Facebook to see if it had been taken out of context, but [looking at it in] context just made it worse. Ethically, if he really feels that way about Muslims, he's required to recuse himself (citing a conflict of interest) from representing any Muslims or anyone he perceives as being Muslim, and the entire office should recuse itself. And — that being a ridiculous position for a public defender's office to be in — he should seriously think about resigning."
There are other ramifications (beyond the insult and insinuations about our president). Now any Muslim — or for that matter non-Christian (if you read the entire days-long rant) — who has been unsuccessfully represented by the public defender's office under Smith's oversight may well have grounds for appeal, citing possible bias in their representation.
"It could raise a question in anyone's mind — if he can't represent Muslims effectively, would he have a problem with somebody else? I'm very disappointed," Veazey said.
Smith bridled Monday afternoon when the editor of this page expressed surprise that he, as an elected official, would take the opportunity to spread division after the tragedy, rather than trying to promote unity and healing.
"We had plenty of folks that flew in to give political speeches in church," Smith responded. "This is on my Facebook page. This is a private citizen — now (yes) it's public knowledge. I don't make it private — griping about the fact that four, now five people are laying dead because we want to be nice to each other."
Finally, and just for the record but far from most importantly, here's an answer to Smith's rhetorical question about what Barack Hussein Obama will do: Ask Osama bin Laden and the string of terrorists killed since his death. Ask the 2,464 people that the FBI says have been killed by covert U.S. drone strikes in the last six years.