It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The young woman was on a trip to Washington, D.C. in October, accompanying several other staff members and 40 residents with learning disabilities being cared for by the Cape Cod non-profit, LIFE, her employer. When visiting Arlington National Cemetery, she had a fellow employee snap a picture of her crouched beside a sign at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The sign said "Silence and Respect." The young woman was making an obscene gesture and pretending to shout loudly.
Thinking her friends would get a kick out of this gesture of disrespect, she then posted the picture on her Facebook page. Surprise! It came to the attention of other people who were not at all her friends, and who expressed their displeasure to her and to her employer. Whereupon the woman posted a half-hearted apology and explanation.
"This is just us, being the (crude expression) that we are, challenging authority in general," she said. It was no different, she explained, than the picture she'd posted the night before, smoking beside a NO SMOKING sign. Well, gee, haven't we all yearned to do that?
LIFE, concerned with their public image and their responsibility to their residents, announced that both the subject of the photo and the photographer had been placed on unpaid leave pending the completion of an internal investigation. This was not good enough for the band of cyber vigilantes that had sprung up to follow the lead of the citizen who'd first lodged the complaint with LIFE. They demanded that she be fired.
A number of people have expressed outrage over the insensitivity of this young woman, and I share their outrage. Others have insisted this is a tempest in a teapot, not worth getting excited about.
I've been to Arlington and to the Tomb numerous times. If you go on a spring morning, with birds singing amid the endless rows of headstones, and even if you only imagine that beneath that silent earth your son, father, brother, daughter is sleeping, and if you then come away without a lump in your throat, you're in the wrong place. You'd probably get more out of a visit to Disney World. This "bivouac of the dead" is hallowed ground, and the Tomb of the Unknowns is its revered centerpiece.
Foolish gestures of disrespect have no place in any cemetery, least of all in Arlington, and certainly not at the Tomb. I have little sympathy for the young woman who thought this would be really hilarious. At the same time, I find distasteful the self-appointed band of vigilantes who, not satisfied with raising the issue, decreed that no form of sanction would satisfy them short of firing the culprit. And eventually LIFE did just that, firing both the offender and her friend who snapped the picture.
While I find the actions of this imbecilic young woman indefensible and outrageous, and the self-righteousness of the vigilantes assuming their right to decide the punishment and demanding her firing almost as bad, I am truly puzzled by the third faction, those who saw no reason for anger. It was a minor thing, some said, so why should anybody be upset about it? A lady from Sweden expressed amazement that Americans pay such honor to dead soldiers, and she wondered why.
I asked questions of those who thought the outrage was much ado about nothing. Are there to be no boundaries? Should we helplessly slide into a form of social anarchy, where the feelings and sensitivities and sacrifices of others are to be scorned? Do you, I asked, personally hold nothing sacred in your own life, disrespect for which would rouse you to anger? Evidently my questions were considered rhetorical. There was no response.
Come to think of it, though, I guess I have my answer.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."