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Wake-up call

The hunted


Lockstep agreement with the philosophy or actions of a public figure should not be a precondition for their being treated respectfully. In theory, the Constitution is the final authority, and whoever gets to cite it convincingly, wins the spoils of being the arbiter of differences of opinion. Individuals who are empowered, though not always trusted to interpret it, sometimes ensure that the dictate of their ideology prevails over the rule of law. 

When knowledge of the law is inconvenient or interferes with their service to other masters, they are prepared to dispense with it. The right of free speech is neither universally acknowledged nor pragmatically handy. The boundaries for tolerance of free speech have been gerrymandered.

Living in the real world, we must realize that free speech, even when guaranteed, comes with sanctions against abuse. The problem is, of course, that abuse is in the eyes of the beholder (and branded into the flesh of the weak).  

The beholder with the greater political influence is victorious.

Nonpartisan law professors, who are an endangered species, warn about too much flexibility, even when the elasticity is driven by idealism. Society cannot float unless it rests on foundational principles.

Does that mean it was all right to boo Attorney General Letitia James at an FDNY promotional ceremony, where the department's first Black woman chaplain was among the honorees?  

One firefighter called the AG's presence a political stunt that backfired and released "fascist pit bulls after guys (most of whom were off-duty and not in FDNY uniform) for exercising their First Amendment rights.” Even if their jeers and catcalls were protected free speech, the hecklers behaved badly, although technically, if taunting is forbidden, so should be applauding, since they are on opposite ends of the same opinion spectrum. 

On that occasion, nothing was said or done by the AG to incite or deserve a hostile reception. Nor were they protesting any position or action she has taken relative to their employment. They were not venting about a labor issue. 

Actually, James has been highly supportive of the FDNY, according to Andrew Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

Subverting the event into a Trump rally was vulgar and out of line. It would have been just the same if the name were Obama, Clinton or Millard Fillmore. Yet such incivility is the most benign form of civil disobedience, which otherwise has an illustrious history. 

There are times when a solemn breach of decorum may be indicated. 

NYPD cops turned their backs on former Mayor Bill de Blasio, when he defaulted to the template of a mourning mayor and feigned being overcome by poignant emotion during the funeral of murdered officers. 

Another controversial departure from polite tradition was former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ripping up the State of the Union speech as soon as ex-President Trump had finished delivering it, with the world watching.

Should the parameters for disruptive behavior at events like the FDNY ceremony be re-drawn and modeled on the "Question Time" of the British House of Commons, where four times every week, the members harangue each other without waiting to be called on. This televised side-show has become something of a sacred rite to an amused citizenry.

It has the effect of diluting the vitriol and detoxifying it. Like botulism into Botox. It's like rugby, but more violent. 

They get to grill and pummel their leaders. It's humbling when nobody is exempted from being the target of vitriol. That's a good thing.

Nations need to better acclimate themselves to the antics of democracy if they are to advance. And they must be less rigid and take themselves less seriously.

AG James bobbled her response to the unwarranted heckling, creating an unnecessary diversionary complaint. Telling the firefighters to "simmer down" and thanking them for "getting it out of your system" came off as patronizing and condescending to folks who rush into conflagrations for a living and rescue infants from smoke-intense rooms in collapsing structures. 

She was off guard.

But she  quickly reversed tone by expressing gratitude to the firefighters who had labored intensively over her own dying mother, noting that they did so without being aware of who she was and that they might have been among those who had heckled her. Cynics would say that she spoke as a consummate politician. The truth is that she chose with tender sincerity to share a private and sensitive experience.

What made this story front-page news was the threat of revenge against the hecklers. It was made, not by James and likely without her knowledge or consent, but by zealous senior management, such as FDNY Chief of Department John Hodgens. 

He wanted the hecklers identified and "hunted down.” 

He emailed department leaders about an investigation by the Bureau of Investigation and Trials (BITS), stating "I've been told by the commissioner it will be better for them if they come forward." He directed the deputy chiefs to instruct the captains of each company to compile and forward a list of members who were present at the promotional ceremony, stressing that the event was videotaped. 

Perhaps he acted in hopes of ingratiating himself with the AG for personal gain, but there is no reason to claim that this fantasy was encouraged, and there is no authentication, or even mere suspicion that James was behind it. 

She was probably annoyed. That doesn't mean she was vindictive.

Ansbro, the Uniformed Firefighters Association president, observed that there is a customary "carnival atmosphere" at such events and implied that attendees sometimes get carried away. They are not a band of shrinking violets. The union leader pointed out that even after the disputation-phobic FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh got booed a while ago, there were no calls for re-education.  

In her relationship with the rank-in-file, she is long past due for fence-mending and bridge-building. It may soon be time for the debt collectors.

The threat of being "hunted down" has been withdrawn. Adherence to this pledge must be monitored with zero tolerance for selective reprisals. Another FDNY mouthpiece indicated that there will be ongoing visits to fire houses to remind members what "good behavior" means. 

So the promise doesn't sound too promising. If management doesn't stop stoking the embers of conflict, they're the ones that will get smoked.

Firefighters must live by the same rules and standards as the rest of us, even though they stand alone in their readiness to sacrifice their lives to save strangers. But the city needs to see the big picture and cut them some slack. No less than for the rioters who strangle our bridges and streets to ambulances in order to make a political statement.

Of course there's no connection between the unease of the firefighters at the promotional ceremony and the flare-up of unrest in the streets by mobs.

At many of our most prestigious colleges, organized and lone wolf agitators are shouting down, encircling, and menacing guest speakers who have, consistent with regulations, been invited by groups to express mainstream views that happen to conflict with the passions of the  protesters. 

Frequently, they have breached security perimeters, driven speakers off campus in fear for their lives. Even when the demonstrations use Nazi rhetoric and tactics, the Ivy League brass finds a way to soft-peddle, finesse or ignore it entirely. 

It's not just the event that gets canceled. It's free speech. So let's keep in perspective the free speech liberties taken by a few firefighters on that one recent occasion.

The FDNY has undergone some revolutionary changes in recent years. There have been seismic shifts in its culture and operation, not always internally generated. 

The rank and file are family, not because of court order or any other intervention, but because they are bonded by their faith in each other to take mortal risks to rescue their comrades. There is an elemental intimacy implicit in that relationship.

For many years, firefighters have ranked near the top of all public and private sector workers for the respect in which they are held by the public among all demographics.

The episode of a few weeks ago was a fluke, and though regrettable, not a scandal.

It never happened. Well, it did, but we'd all be better off if we could forget it.

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