The Nation's Pulse

Local Hero

It is probably best we don't make stupidity a crime.

By 3.31.11

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A local man was one of those killed by an Islamic extremist this month at Frankfort International Airport in Germany. The German-born Kosovo Albanian was targeting American servicemen on their way to Afghanistan.

Airman 1st Class Zachary Cuddeback, 21, was at the wheel when the religious fanatic boarded the military bus, cried "God is great" in Arabic, and opened fire. Two airmen died and two more were injured before the shooter's gun jammed.

I say, local "man," but Zac Cuddeback still had those boyish good looks of someone fresh out of high school. Someone still trying to find himself, and hoping the Air Force would aid him in that all-important quest.

It was no surprise that Zac was behind the wheel. Friends say he spent half his time fixing cars. Driving, playing hockey (he played for a season on Old Dominion University's hockey team), and serving his country were all he ever wanted to do.

At the local newspaper, we argued over the wording of the headline, and whether to label this an act of terror, as in "Terror Strikes One of Our Own." Was this an act of Islamic terror, a religious killing, or simply cold-blooded murder? Later, at the memorial service, the local pastor called Zac's killing a "senseless act of misguided religion." I guess that's one way to put it.

A week later, Zac's remains were returned home to Scott Air Force Base. Zac was an Army brat, and his family asked he be buried, with full military honors, next to his grandfather, at the air force base where Zac had been born just 21 years before.

HERE, IN THE TOWN of O'Fallon, Illinois, each time a fallen soldier returns home you find the same reaction: hundreds of people come out of their homes to honor the airman and his or her family. Those who don't turn out are the ones who never do, those who are too busy at the office, or too tuned into the television, or too wrapped up in the chaos of their own lives.

The turnout was even greater than usual for Zac. It was easy to see why.

O'Fallon is a military town. Almost everyone you meet is ex-military. So it was no surprise that thousands of people turned out as Zac's coffin was transported along the highways, through the residential streets, and down the flat country roads, all lined with American flags, thousands upon thousands of them, stretching on to the horizon. The day was windy and warm, the only sound the March wind snapping through the flags. Zac's procession was escorted by the local fire department, police, and 200 Patriot Guard Riders from across the Midwest, the mufflers on their Harley Davidson motorbikes respectfully muffled for the occasion.

There was a secondary reason for the big turnout.

Along the parade route, relegated to a patch of weeds cordoned off with yellow police tape and surrounded by Illinois state troopers, stood six members of the Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kansas. I counted one man, two women and three clueless small boys. One of the boys held a sign that read, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."

The employees of the nearby Circle K gas station had erected a banner next to the Westboro bunch that read: "God Bless Our Troops." Across the highway, about 100 people had gathered for a counter-protest. They too had signs, only theirs read "God and hate don't mix."

One counter-protester seemed to speak for all her neighbors when she jerked her thumb at those across the street and said, "This funeral is for a man who died for their right to be ignorant."

That's basically what the Supreme Court said in its recent decision in Snyder v. Phelps. We have a guaranteed right to be stupid. In the long run, it is probably best we don't make a crime of being ignorant.

After the procession passed, I climbed in my truck and started back to the office. I was thinking about the obvious parallels between the Muslim extremist and the Westboro bunch, and trying not to sink to their level by hating them. It wasn't easy.

I got back to the office late and filed my story and punched out for the day. Immediately I began thinking about my next story, a piece about two dozen teachers being laid off. I suppose it is natural and expected that we move on with our lives and don't think about the daily sacrifices these young men and women make. That is, until the next parade.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.