By Simon Baker
It amazes me that so much hatred and anger lies just below the surface of many people, and that it takes so little to bring out vile words and actions.
My colleague Rob Boston previously wroteabout Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old high school student who filed suit to have a prayer banner removed from Cranston High School West in Cranston, R.I.
In a 40-page decision issued Jan. 11, a judge dismissed school officials’ claims that Ahlquist, who identifies as an atheist, had no right to challenge the banner. He then went on to explain why this official school prayer, which has been hanging in the gym since 1963, is patently unconstitutional.
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Sadly, even though the law is on Ahlquist’s side, some in her community have continuedattacking her viciously. State Rep. Peter Polombo on Jan. 16 called Alhquist “an evil little thing,” a “clapping seal” and a “pawn star” on a talk radio show, according to a report on CranstonPatch.com.
Ahlquist has also been ripped to shreds across the Internet. Among the comments that are repeatable, a Twitter user said “this girl honestly needs to be punched in the face.” An anonymous commenter posted Ahlquist’s home address on the Providence Journal's website.
She even received threats of physical harm and Cranston Police said they are investigating some threats directed at her on the Internet, according to CranstonPatch.
It has gotten so ridiculous that several local florists wouldn’t deliver flowers to Ahlquist’s house.
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"We refused the order because we really don't want to cross lines," said Raymond Santilli, owner of Flowers by Santilli, according to reports from WJAR in Cranston and CNN. "If I send flowers there, somebody may get upset with us and retaliate to us.”
Another florist who refused an order for Ahlquist, Marina Plowman of Twins Florist, agreed.
"I just chose not to do it,” she said, according to the WJAR/CNN report. “Nothing personal against her or anybody, it was a choice that I made. It was my right to do that, so I did.”
For her part, Ahlquist has displayed remarkable poise and courage.
"Even if lots of kids in school hate you, even if there's nasty comments on the Internet, it's important to stand up for something you believe in," Ahlquist said, according to CranstonPatch. "I could have said nothing but I did what I believe in and I'm glad I did what I did. I've had to deal with a lot of harassment and negative flak from people who disagree with my views and opinions, but it's all worth it."
There’s clearly a lesson here. I spoke recently by phone with someone who identified himself as a member of the Tea Party. It was pretty obvious that he and I didn’t agree and we were firm in our opposing viewpoints.
The conversation wasn’t very productive, but I listened to what he had to say and I responded. I didn’t curse. He didn’t curse. At the end, he even thanked me for being civil and told me to have a nice day. I wished him the same.
Disagreements are fine and, in fact, should be encouraged in a democracy. But there’s absolutely no reason we can’t remain calm and civil. For people to act the way they have toward Ahlquist, who isn’t even legally an adult, is both shocking and disgusting. There is no excuse for it.
Ahlquist’s story reminds me of a sign I saw at the Stephen Colbert/Jon Stewart “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, DC in October 2010.
“I may disagree with you,” the sign said, “but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”
That sign is something we should all keep in mind. You can disagree with Jessica Ahlquist and what she stands for, but it’s safe to say she’s not Hitler. A little perspective would do some people a lot of good.