Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Actions have consequences

One of the people who sent death threats to PZ Myers over his Eucharist comment has managed to get his wife fired from her job.

For those of you arriving late to the story, the background is this: Two weeks ago a student at the University of Central Florida, named Webster Cook, made news when he took a Eucharist, a consecrated communion wafer, out of the campus church. Webster said he originally intended to bring it back to his pew to show a curious non-Catholic friend before consuming it. When a church leader tried to seize the wafer from him, Cook got mad and left the church with the uneaten wafer. This turned into a stand-off, with the church demanding he return the wafer, Cook demanding an apology, and the local press running headlines like "'Body Of Christ' Snatched From Church, Held Hostage By UCF Student." The headlines were just the beginning of the silliness. The local diocese promptly declared Cook's action a hate crime and dispatched a nun to protect the Eucharist from attacks by unbelievers during the next mass.

At this point, William Donohue became involved. Donohue is a notorious anti-Semite and homophobe who claims without authority to be a spokesman for all American Catholics. For reasons no one can explain, the cable news networks regularly give him a platform from which to dispense his fringe rantings. Donohue issued a press release through his group the Catholic League:
For a student to disrupt Mass by taking the Body of Christ hostage—regardless of the alleged nature of his grievance—is beyond hate speech. That is why the UCF administration needs to act swiftly and decisively in seeing that justice is done. All options should be on the table, including expulsion.

Donohue's followers began swamping the university with demands that Cook be expelled and/or jailed and many sent harassing letters to Cook himself damning him to hell. Some included death threats. The school responded with armed guards--for the Eucharist at the mass.

Enter PZ Myers. P-Zed commented on his blog Pharyngula at the silliness of it all saying "It's a frackin' cracker!" adding:
Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There's no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I'm sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I'll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.

This rude comment sent Donohue into an apoplectic fit.
The Myers blog can be accessed from the university’s website. The university has a policy statement on this issue which says that the "Contents of all electronic pages must be consistent with University of Minnesota policies, local, state and federal laws." One of the school’s policies, "Code of Conduct," says that "When dealing with others," faculty et al. must be "respectful, fair and civil." Accordingly, we are contacting the President and the Board of Regents to see what they are going to do about this matter. Because the university is a state institution, we are also contacting the Minnesota legislature.

It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ. We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively.

Donohue's message was a clear call for his followers to lay siege to the University of Minnesota with demands for P-Zed's firing and they responded with zeal. Some might think that P-Zed's irreverent comment crosses some sort of line and that he indeed deserves to face stiff consequences, but before you think that consider these two points. First, P-Zed didn't actually commit any kind of desecration or sacrilege; he merely made a rhetorical offer to do so. Second, and more importantly, he made this offer on his own time in a forum unconnected to the University. Donohue deliberately misleads on this point. P-Zed's blog Pharyngula is hosted by Seed magazine on its ScienceBlogs site. The pages are clearly marked as such. P-Zed has always been scrupulously clear that his blogging expresses his thoughts and are not endorsed by the University of Minnesota, or by Seed or by any of the other sciencebloggers for that matter. For the university to punish or censor what P-Zed says on his own time in his own space would be a massive intrusion into his private life and violation of his right to free speech. "Myers blog can be accessed from the university’s website" only by following a link from his personal faculty page to his blog. By playing the game of six degrees of internet separation I'm sure I could "access" Nazi or pedophile pages from Donohue's Catholic League.

In a bizarre follow up, Thomas E. Foley, a Virginia delegate to the Republican National Convention to be held in Minneapolis next month has asked for extra security to provided by the police to Catholic churches during the convention. Directly referencing Donohue as a source of his information, Foley seems to imagine that P-Zed will lead angry hordes of atheists and liberals to attack good Catholics as they try to worship in peace. Since he has only asked for additional security during the convention, I can only assume that plans to leave the good Catholics of Minneapolis to a fate worse that death after the convention cameras are gone. Wouldn't that security be put to better use at the airport protecting the delegates from Republican congressmen with wide stances?

Like Cook, P-Zed was soon deluged with letters and blog comments that were abusive, harassing, and occasionally threatening. On Sunday he printed two of the threatening letters with all of their header information. This was one of them:
what I would like to know is how did you even get a job at a collage.

when you are obviously a moron. How would you feel if nice folks starting ranting against Fags, and atheist like yourself.

well sir, you don't get to blaspheme and walk away from this. You have two choices my fucked up friend, first you can quit your job for the good of the children. Or you can get your brains beat in.

I give you till the first of the month, get that resignation in cunt

It includes all of the hallmarks of the genre: homophobia, misogyny, profanity, irrelevant strawmen, and bad grammar. It also included a return address: 1800FLOWERS is an online florist, a perfectly legitimate business that many of us have used. P-Zed and some of his commenters expressed the opinion that it was probably fake since no one is stupid enough to send threatening letters from the work e-mail. Others determined that it was a real address and that it was, in fact, sent from the 1800FLOWERS servers. Many sent letters to the florist (too many; P-Zed had to remind them that counter harassment is just as bad a harassment and beg his supporters to stop).

Today we got news that 1800FLOWERS has fired the user of that e-mail account, Melanie Kroll. But here's the problem. Ms. Kroll didn't write the threatening letter; her husband, Chuck, wrote it on her computer while she was apparently out of town. Chuck has written a rambling confession and semi-apology and posted it in the comments of Breaking Spells, a blog that wrote about the issue. He has not, as far as I can tell, said anything directly to P-Zed.

Although it's long, Chuck's apologia is worth looking at in detail. The capitalization, formatting, and such are all his.
Melanie Kroll did not send an email to anyone named Paul. Melanie Kroll did not threaten anyone in an email with death, or as was the case in the email in question, a physical beating.

this email did not come from 1-800-flowers, or anyone connected in anyway shape or form to that company, which happens to provide good paying jobs, for lot’s of folks who might otherwise not have them. they also happen to provide a good product at a fair price.

The fact is, that this email to the so called professor, was sent by an angry male catholic, who was very upset after reading that some crazed person in a position of responsibility, charged with teaching children biology, had been encouraging people to steal and desecrate the body of CHRIST, which for Catholics is represented by the Eucharist.

I know this to be true, since I wrote the original email to this so called teacher.

This is clearly not an apology to PZ Myers, who Kroll denigrates as "the so called professor," "some crazed person in a position of responsibility," and "this so called teacher." Notice the peculiar conservative tendency to reduce college students, people who are old enough to vote, drive, die in war, and occasionally buy beer, as vulnerable "children." It's not only insulting to the students, it's an inflammatory form of romanticism similar to referring to a blastocyst, an undifferentiated bunch of cells in a woman's womb, as a "baby." This is a usage that Kroll has most likely learned from listening to the propaganda of people like Donohue. Make note of the all capitals treatment that Christ gets; we'll see it again later.
Was the tone of the letter terse, and did I say I would beat his brains in, yes I did.

I wrote this in the same way one does when saying “I’ll beat your ass”, “or kick I’ll kick your butt” or other such niceties used by members of the unpolished masses, such as myself.

I live a thousand miles away from this guy.

"I didn't really mean it" isn't a very good defense for sending threatening letters. It's one thing to say something like that to someone in person in a bar or other public place. It's something else completely to commit a threat to writing and send it to someone you've never met. It crosses the line between noise and crime. The "unpolished masses" is a nice bit of populist self-pity.
Upon reflection, and reading many of the comments made, I feel that no matter how mad I was, it did not make it right for me to use the language or tone I used. In fact, I think there would have been many more constructive things I could have done, the angry email was just the simplest way.

And I’m sorry.

This is the clearest part of the apologia. It gets to the point. While it's not clear who Kroll is apologizing to, it's clear that he knows he made a mistake and he's sorry he did. Even though he's mostly sorry for himself and his wife, if he would have stopped at this point, it would have been a great letter. But he doesn't stop.
I wonder if that university where mr. myers is employed excepts any money from the state? And I wonder if the good people of this state know that they are paying good, hard earned tax dollars on such a disturbing creature as mr. myers.? I know for a fact that the University is aware of mr. myers antics, and have disavowed his statements.

I am going to write to mr. Myers and offer him my apologies for using such childish language, and the threatening way in which I presented myself to him. It is my hope that he will forgive me, or hold me accountable. However, I think it is his duty to repair the damage that he and his associates have achieved through their concerted and organized campaign to punish both Melanie Kroll, and 1-800-flowers, who were completely blameless in this matter.

However, this whole incident has caused someone who had nothing to do with the email to mr.myers,.a wonderful, sweet person who would never threaten anyone terrible troubles. Great harm has been done to this wonderful lady, without proof or a question asked, you just accuse, and assume. Wow and I thought you liberal folks were supposed to be the open minded ones.

After insulting P-Zed some more he says he's going to apologize to him for his "childish language." Then he insults the "liberal folks" to who he's addressing the current letter.
It’s somewhat amazing to me, that a guy responding (albeit brutishly) )to a news article about a crazed professor who was encouraging his students and others to desecrate the American catholic church, could turn into this orgy of innuendo, and an attack on an innocent, hard working mother of three, and a company that hires many underprivileged people, and single mothers as a matter of policy.

This follows a few paragraphs where Kroll pleads for his wife and the good name of her, now former, employer. Once again, the element of self-pity creeps in and he once again insults the audience he's supposedly apologizing to, accusing them of an "orgy of innuendo" and "attack."

At this point, you can see the damage done by Donohue's technically correct, but misleading implication that P-Zed made his comments in a university forum. Kroll's statement that he was provoked by "a crazed professor who was encouraging his students and others to desecrate the American catholic church" is wrong in almost every detail. I'll leave aside whether P-Zed is crazed. That's a matter of opinion. I've met him and found him charming and soft-spoken. Others who only know him from his writing might have a different opinion. The key error is that he never "encourag[ed] his students" or anyone else to "desecrate the American catholic church." PZ Myers threatened to desecrate a communion wafer should one happen to come his way. He did not ask anyone else--student or other--to desecrate anything. Most importantly, his comments were not directed at his students or in his role as a professor. They were the comments of some guy with a blog, talking to his readers.
My sending mr. myers that wrongheaded stupid email was never the fault of Melanie Kroll, or 1800-flowers, or the pope, or Bill DONAHUE, not even the president. It was just my gut reaction to statements made by mr. myers and his disciples.

Isn't it a little creepy and cult-like that Bill Donohue gets the same all capitals treatment that is otherwise reserved for Jesus Christ? Even the pope, God's vicar on earth, doesn't get that treatment.
In closing I still maintain that if mr. myers. Or anyone, who is encouraging people to desecrate the Eucharist, or if he is doing so himself, I would like to beat his brains in, would I? I don’t know. I’ve never done so before. Though, at that one moment when I was reading his statements..? I suppose If I caught him doing it, I would try to stop him.

And now he undermines his entire apology. He's never assaulted anyone before, but in P-Zed's case he might make an exception. How does this help his case.
I wonder if all of you perfectly politically correct folks here, the ones who prefer to stifle any thought, or debate that does not fit into the approved thoughts of the day. Would find it so interesting, or funny, if mr.myers were attacking the Muslim or Jewish religions, or encouraging others do so?

It appears that Mr. Kroll's temper has been building as he writes. Whatever spirit of contrition he had at the beginning is now gone, replaced by sarcasm and assaults on an imaginary liberal strawman.
What many folks don’t know, is that mr. myers seems to have a warm spot for the Islamic religion. We know this from his spirited defense of Islam in the past, he insists Islam differs from other religions. It seems that mr.myers can’t even be a good atheist.

His thesis is that, it’s wrong to attack Islamic houses of worship and symbols, because they are poor and minorities. At least that is what a reasonable person would gather from mr. myers past statements.

This is completely incorrect. He has either mixed PZ Myers up with someone else or, as I suspect is the case, assigned all of the attitudes of the strawman "liberal professor" of his imagination to P-Zed. PZ Myers is nothing if not an equal opportunity offender. His atheism and rationalism lead him to be equally critical and hostile to fundamentalist Protestants, Scientologists, Catholics, and, yes, Moslems. Here are a few samples of his "warm spot for the Islamic religion" (here, here, here).

Kroll goes on in that vein for a few more paragraphs finishing with this:
It may very well have resulted (if the recent 30 or so year past is any indication) with the good professor hearing the words Allah Akbar shouted into his ear, while not so nice things were happening to him, perhaps things like, being shot in the lobby of a travel agency, being thrown overboard of his cruise ship, or being shot at the airport ticket counter at lax, or maybe being driven over by a student in the college parking lot, could be the bus he rides would have been torn to shreds by a homicide bomber, or even being murdered while riding his bicycle to work, or perhaps he would have been sitting at his office computer, when one the offended folks drove an airplane through his window.

A big finish that includes murderous fantasies and not a little envy over the willingness of Islamic thugs to act on their violent urges while most Christians refrain.

Chuck Kroll's apology obviously needs work. If he's looking for forgiveness, he needs do a lot more to deserve it. Melanie Kroll is another matter. She threatened no one. He worst crimes are bad taste in men and leaving her computer unguarded. Nether of these should have cost her her job. I'm going to write to 1800FLOWERS and ask them to reconsider their decision. Vengeance against the whole family is only valid in primitive, religious based societies. Modern, secular societies should have higher standards of justice.

Meanwhile, I don't think the story is over. Donohue, Foley, and others are still gunning for P-Zed's job and hoping to get as mileage out of crackergate as they can. They need the persecution narrative to keep their flock in line. For Donohue, there's money to be made through his Catholic League. This sort of kerfluffle is an ideal fundraising controversy. For Foley, fear is one of the glues that hold the modern Republican Party together. The modern GOP has used the culture wars to distract voters from real wars and their economic failures for the last forty years. Foley is hoping to work the old magic one more time. If Donohue and Foley destroy a good professor on the way to their goals, they don't care.

We, however, should care.

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