Do you believe opponents of the war in Afghanistan have a constitutionally guaranteed freedom to exercise their opposition by demonstrating against the war at funerals of fallen soldiers?If you answer yes, then do you also think that they should conduct their demonstrations at those sites? No matter how you answered, do you think that those who believe they should not, who think it's insensitive and insulting, who believe they should take their demonstrations to other venues, do you think those people are cowardly right-wingers filled with hatred and bigotry and animated by the basest of political motives?
Frank Rich of the New York Times does. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post does. So do some of the prime time hosts on MSNBC. They don't say exactly this, of course, but it's the logic of their position.
These pundits have made it clear that they consider everyone who opposes the GZ mosque to be disreputable people, either hate-filled demagogues themselves or useful idiots easily manipulated by the right-wing extremist media. It doesn't matter to them that opponents of this mosque do not deny that its backers have a legal right to build their cultural center near the site of the 9/11 attack - one of the most horrific crimes ever committed in the name of Allah. It doesn't matter that their opposition, in the main, stems from their belief that it's just insensitive and offensive for them to do so.
Members of Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist church flaunt signs at the funerals of fallen servicemen and women saying things like "God Hates Fags" because they believe that the deaths of these soldiers and Marines are God's judgment on a military and country that tolerates homosexuality. Should they have the right to express these views? Yes. Do the families of the dead have the right to be offended and to demand that they be kept at a distance from the place where they grieve for their loved ones?
The logic of the position held by Robinson, Rich and the MSNBC hosts, leads to the conclusion that to object to Mr. Phelps' presence, as the families of the deceased loved ones invariably do, is a symptom of an underlying ugliness in the character of those family members and their sympathizers. It is an expression of appalling ignorance, intolerance and prejudice. It manifests a disdain for the first amendment.
But of course this is all nonsense. What opposition to Mr. Phelp's protests manifests is a contempt for his boorish insensitivity. It may also manifest a contempt for his beliefs, but it doesn't signify anything at all about the attitude toward the first amendment held by those who want Mr. Phelps nowhere near the site of their grieving.
This is, however, a distinction apparently too complex for columnists like Robinson and Rich, and commentators like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann to grasp. Or maybe they grasp it but ignore it because they think there's some political advantage to be gained by smearing as "right-wing Republicans" the almost 70% of Americans who oppose the mosque.