Saturday, October 21, 2006

"If free speech is against the law, then arrest me."

Those are the words Steven Howards says he spoke to a Secret Service agent who asked him if he'd assaulted Vice President Dick Cheney. According to Howards, this was what happened when he encountered the Vice President in Colorado this past June 16:
Howards was in Beaver Creek because his kids were at piano camp. He arose that morning to the latest reports of U.S. and Iraqi casualties, prompting him to muse, "What a catastrophe this is."

While walking his older son, Koby, to a piano class, he noticed a small crowd on the mall. At its epicenter was Vice President Dick Cheney. At the time, Howards didn't know that Cheney was in town to attend a conference sponsored by former President Gerald Ford. Most of the people in the crowd seemed awed.

Howards was not. During his tenure as a lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C., he had seen a lot of big-shot politicos close up.

"There's this reverence accorded to elected officials, like they somehow have this brilliance that we all lack," he would say later. "I'm not saying you shouldn't respect these guys, but there's a big difference between respect and reverence."

As he watched Cheney "floating around, shaking hands," something inside Howards was detonated. "I simply couldn't, in good conscience, let this opportunity pass."

He approached the vice president and when the number-two man in the U.S. government turned to him, Howards said, "Your policies in Iraq are reprehensible."

Later, he would recall that he may have lightly touched Cheney on the arm or shoulder because, "I remember thinking, 'He's wearing silk.' "

The encounter was brief. In fact, according to Howards, his six words and one touch were the encounter. He kept walking with his son to rendezvous with his wife, Deborah, and younger son, Jonah. He'd done it. He'd made a statement...

As Howard recalls, "about 10 minutes" after he had registered his protest to Cheney, he was walking back across the mall to his rented condo, this time with 8-year-old Jonah in tow. A Secret Service agent (later identified as Virgil D. "Gus" Reichle Jr.) "popped out of the shadows, flicked his badge and asked me, 'Did you assault the vice president?' "

A little shaken, Howards explained what had happened, throwing in his editorial that, "If Mr. Cheney wants to be shielded from public criticism, he should avoid public places."

He also remembers saying, "If free speech is against the law, then arrest me."

Which is just what Reichle did.

Promptly handcuffed and being urged along by the agent, Howard says he told the agent that he couldn't abandon his young son. He says the agent responded, "We'll call Social Services."

By then, however, Jonah had reached his mother. Deborah Andrews was able to locate her husband as he was being lowered into a black sport utility vehicle. But when she asked where he was being taken, she says she got no reply.

Where he was going was Eagle County jail - to be charged with assaulting the vice president. He spent three hours in a sealed conference room, in handcuffs, buffeted among emotions of being "astonished . . . bored . . . ticked-off . . . anxious. Look, the whole thing - I gotta admit - was kind of scary."

By the time Deb paid his $500 bail, charges had been reduced from federal assault to state "harassment."
The charges were later dropped.

But Howards has filed suit against the arresting agent, claiming that his "First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated with 'deliberate indifference.'"

Irrrespective of one's views on the war in Iraq and irrespective of one's reaction to Howards' law suit, his arrest is disturbing. It has implications for everybody who has an opinion, whether that opinion has to do with politics, religion, science, whatever.

Some will automatically paint Howards' arrest as the action of an administration bent on repressing free speech.

Others will see it as the response to the fear and paranoia induced in a government agency charged with protecting the President and the Vice President of the United States by the events of September 11, 2001.

What do you think?


Deborah White said...

Since the US is a democracy with free speech protected, I agree wtih your view.

Such practices are commonplace
in police states and totalitarian governments. It would appear that Mr. Cheney believes that the US is the latter, not the former.

Such is the classic "neocon" view of government rule, per Jimmy Carter's book "Our Endangered Values."

Apartment 604 said...

Later, he would recall that he may have lightly touched Cheney on the arm or shoulder because, "I remember thinking, 'He's wearing silk.' "

When I first heard about this case, I felt like there had to be something missing.

Now I read that this guy thinks he may have "lightly touched" Cheney because of the suit that he was wearing? Does that make sense?? "I hate you, but wow, that's some amazing fabric you're wearing."

For all we know, he could have poked or even tried to shove Cheney. Of course, that doesn't explain why he wouldn't be arrested on the spot, either (as opposed to ten minutes later) . . .

So for now, I'm reserving judgment. Perhaps Howards deserved to be arrested, perhaps it was the mark of a totalitarian state; the article doesn't give me enough info to make that determination.

Mark Daniels said...

Deborah and Apartment:
I guess I have somewhat mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, the fact that the charge was later dropped could be interpreted as a tacit admission on the government's part that they really had no case.

On the other, I find it a bit disturbing that the charge was filed in the first place and that the Secret Service took the trouble to find this man after a seemingly benign encounter. After all, had they found him menacing at the moment of his encounter with Vice President Cheney, they would seemingly have arrested him on the spot.

Whether the motives of the Secret Service, the actual behavior of Mr. Howards, or what involvement, if any, Mr. Cheney and his functionaries may have had in the charge or the dropping of the charge, we may never know.

Thank you for your comments.


Mark Daniels said...

The next-to-last paragraph should have begun, "Whatever the motives..." I just caught that, while checking the site in the wake of the Blogspot crash of earlier this evening.