In the weeks following Sept. 11, conventional wisdom held that loud and potentially violent protest rallies would subside. For one thing, that kind of tactic seemed especially unseemly, even bordering on terroristic, after what happened. For another, Americans, in their wave of patriotic fervor, were perceived as unwilling to stand by and tolerate such things, regardless of the cause.
The question Utahns and Olympic visitors should ask is, why has any of that changed? Why is Utah's Olympic safety commander receiving almost daily threats that hundreds, or even thousands, of people plan to disrupt the Games next month with their protests? Why would advocates for the homeless, for example, feel they could gain any sympathy by ignoring designated protest zones and becoming a nuisance? Why would anyone be persuaded to join animal activists if they vandalize a fur shop or stand in the way of Olympic enjoyment?
The homeless advocates have said they plan to march to the opening ceremonies regardless of whether they have a permit. The city already is considering granting the Utah Animal Rights Coalition and the Citizen Activist Network, which takes issue with commercialism, to go beyond the designated protest zones, but Utahns ought to demand that the line been drawn quickly. These disruptions have nothing to do with Olympic competition. The First Amendment grants the right to peacefully assemble and to speak freely, but it does not grant the right to disrupt another legal event ? even if that event attracts a worldwide audience.
Somewhere during the last 30 years, many interest groups have learned to twist the concept of free speech into a philosophy that says the marketplace of ideas can be controlled by whichever side yells the loudest and is the most obnoxious. That is neither democratic nor freedom-enhancing.
Law-enforcement officials say they have plans for keeping things in line. The community, state, nation and world are counting on them.
In recent weeks, the Olympic torch run has given Americans a glimpse into the emotion that will surround the Winter Olympics. Crowds have lined the torch's path. Tears have been shed. People have equated the flame with healing; with peace and civilization in a time of insane crisis.
The Wasatch Front is about to become the focus, not only of the entire civilized world but of its hopes for an elusive level of global understanding. The Olympic Games have that kind of draw on people, especially now. Angry, large-scale protests that disrupt the Games and threaten public safety are as unseemly today as they have been at any time since Sept. 11.