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Protesters can’t co-opt the Games

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Maybe it's a sign of the times.

Last weekend I was having lunch in a noisy cafe when I noticed the couple sitting across from me. They were leaning toward each other over a small table, but they might as well have been miles apart. Both of them were equipped with hands-free devices on their cell phones, little unobtrusive ear buds with thin dark wires extending the length of their bodies. Both of them were engaged in animated conversations but not with each other.

They were gesticulating and carrying on in a way that, to a casual observer from an earlier time, would have made "Harvey," the play about a man and his imaginary 6-foot rabbit, seem all too real.

But then, to a detached observer much of the early 21st century would look like a minimum-security insane asylum. We all gyrate, bee-bop and speak to the voices in our heads.

This was, however, more than just evidence of an age in which technology allows effortless communication that makes distant people seem as close as those around us. It was a metaphor. We are all connected, but only to the messages we want to hear. This may be the age of information, but getting people to listen has never been so hard.

Which may be why advocates and interest groups of every stripe suddenly see the 2002 Winter Olympics as the perfect forum for their messages.

Olympic Public Safety Commander Robert Flowers raised some eyebrows last week when he said few days pass without a threat coming in from someone looking to disrupt the Games. Frankly, few people realized what was looming out there.

"I don't want to get into the particulars of the letters," this newspaper quoted him as saying. "But you get things like, 'We're going to disrupt the opening ceremonies' or 'We're going to disrupt the traffic flow.' "

On the one hand, it's nice to have fair warning. But then, the element of surprise seldom works for a protester. It doesn't give television reporters enough time to set up their tripods.

The philosophy of the modern protester, as defined by people such as radical historian and agitator Howard Zinn, is that groups are justified in violating a law — even a good law — if they occupy a higher moral ground or believe a fundamental human right is at stake.

Zinn justifies this with a tortured moral rationalization. It's OK, for instance, to disobey a traffic law if it means not running over a child. Most people would agree with that. But he goes a step further by saying that illegally occupying someone's office is not as serious as killing people in war, or that occupying a building you don't own is not as bad as racism in education. The unlawful activity is justified because the cause you are advocating is on a higher moral ground.

I don't need to belabor the point. Most of you already are a step ahead. This is logical mush. A driver who makes a split-second decision to break a law and avoid a child is indeed making a moral choice, but it is to cause the least harm possible in a situation where few options exist. Those who occupy buildings and offices are creating innocent victims among people not directly related to the higher moral cause when, certainly, there are plenty of other options.

And then, of course, there is the moral cause itself. Who decides which cause is so great it requires laws to be broken?

Why, anyone and everyone, of course. Which is why the list of high moral causes for the Winter Games is so long — stretching from animal rights to the homeless to abortion and back again.

But of course none of these has a thing to do with downhill skiing or hockey. The only reason these groups are grabbing like barnacles to the underside of the Games is that it is one of the few events in the world capable of attracting 3.5 billion viewers.

Salt Lake City has set aside designated protest zones. That is a proper way to protect the Constitution's guarantee that people can peaceably assemble and speak freely, recognizing that government has a greater obligation to maintain order and protect public safety. It has no duty to tolerate any group that wishes to break laws in the name of a cause.

Americans have at times embraced, even honored, examples of civil disobedience. The Boston Tea Party comes to mind, as does the sit-in a group of black students staged in 1960 at a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where they had been refused service.

These protests were directed at specific institutions that were causing problems. They were not attempts to co-opt unrelated events that just happened to have a large audience. In both cases, few other options were available.

In a world where everyone talks and few people listen, that is a distinction that often gets lost.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: even@desnews.com