A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Justifying Murder as "Going to War"

Tragedy struck tiny Kirkwood, Missouri yet again this last week:
Some left flowers, balloons and memorials on the steps of City Hall. Others gathered at a prayer vigil where a bell tolled six times as mourners clutched white candles. Residents of this St. Louis suburb struggled to heal as they tried to make sense of a shooting spree at a City Council meeting that left five people dead and the mayor fighting for his life.

"This is such an incredible shock to all of us. It's a tragedy of untold magnitude," Deputy Mayor Tim Griffin said at a news conference Friday. "The business of the city will continue and we will recover, but we will never be the same."

Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton had a long history of fighting with city officials over a litany of code violations, fines and citations. Police searched his house Thursday night after the rampage and removed placards containing protest slogans that Thornton often carried to City Hall, his brother said.

St. Louis County Police spokeswoman Tracy Panus said authorities were still trying to piece together the details of the attack.

Over the years, Thornton racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets and citations. The asphalt company owner raged at council meetings that he was being persecuted, mocking city officials as "jackasses" and accusing them of having a racist "plantation mentality."

His outbursts got him arrested twice on disorderly conduct charges, and he filed a free speech lawsuit against Kirkwood, but lost the case last month.

On Thursday night, he left his home and headed to one more City Council meeting, carrying a loaded gun. On his bed back home, his younger brother Arthur said he found a note that read: "The truth will come out in the end."

Before he was shot to death by police, Thornton, 52, killed two policemen, Tom Ballman and William Biggs; council members Michael H.T. Lynch and Connie Karr; and Director of Public Works Kenneth Yost.

Mayor Mike Swoboda was hospitalized in critical condition with gunshot wounds, and a newspaper reporter covering the meeting, Todd Smith of Suburban Journals, was in satisfactory condition.

Thornton's dispute with City Hall had been escalating since the late 1990s, when he "was promised" a large amount of construction work on a development near his home, said Arthur Thornton, 42. The vast majority of work went to other contractors, he said.

"They just gave him what I'd call the scraps," Arthur Thornton said.

Standing in front of City Hall, another brother, Gerald Thornton added: "They denied all rights to the access of protection and he took it upon himself to go to war and end the issue."

Thornton's first shooting victim was Biggs, who was on duty outside City Hall, then walked into the council chambers carrying one of the slain officer's pistols to continue the rampage.

After the Pledge of Allegiance was recited at the start of the meeting, Thornton then squeezed off shot after shot. At one point, he yelled "Shoot the mayor!" before he was shot to death by police.

"We crawled under the chairs and just laid there," reporter Janet McNichols, who was covering the meeting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said in a video interview on the newspaper's Web site. "We heard Cookie shooting, and then we heard some shouting, and the police, the Kirkwood police, had heard what was going on, and they ran in, and they shot him."

The shooting brought a violent end to a feud that had gone back years.

Thornton had developed an especially tense relationship with Yost, Arthur Thornton said. Yost would often complain that Thornton was parking his commercial vehicles in residential neighborhoods. Some were parked in Thornton's driveway, some in a lot across the street.

Charles Thornton received roughly 150 tickets over the years, and would often complain about the treatment at City Council meetings. He called the fines against him a "slave tax," according to accounts of the meetings in the town's paper, The Webster-Kirkwood Times.

He was cuffed and dragged from council chambers, and the council considered banning him permanently after that meeting. Ultimately, the group decided that while his behavior was disruptive, he had a right to be there.

In a federal lawsuit stemming from his arrests for disorderly conduct during two meetings just weeks apart, Thornton insisted that Kirkwood officials violated his constitutional rights to free speech by barring him from speaking at the meetings.

But a judge in St. Louis tossed out the lawsuit Jan. 28, writing that "any restrictions on Thornton's speech were reasonable, viewpoint neutral, and served important governmental interests."

I am sure the murderer felt abused by the system. I am sure he was angry. But none of it justifies killing people. Period.

We live in a society in which any words or actions that seem to contradict our image of our self-worth provoke violent or even deadly reactions. We must find our ethical center again. We could start by decrying immoral actions done in our name.

And by the way, the murderer's brother Gerald Thornton himself has killed someone in a fit of anger and served time in prison.

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At 2/9/08, 6:44 PM, Blogger thepowerguides said...

I am a Brit now living here and the one thing I have found so different is how people who are angry use guns to settle scores , My neighbor is a local farmer who shoots rabbits and the occasional Coyote so it's not that I disagree with guns just maybe how easy they seem to be to obtain and the range which to my untrained eye appear to go far beyond providing self protection or hunting


At 2/9/08, 11:27 PM, Blogger matineeidol said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/9/08, 11:30 PM, Blogger matineeidol said...

While I agree completely with the point that nothing (and I really mean nothing) justifies murder, I have to say I think the brother's comments have been taken out of context to a great extent. He was asked about his brother's motivation, and answered that his brother had decided to go to war (with the implied inference that death in war is not murder). I don't think it's right, but the answer was to a question of motivation, not right or wrong. I can't speak for either man's character, but the man's brother was killed and killed others--I don't think circumspection the next day is reasonable. It speaks, however, to what I see all around me in St. Louis: a racial and economic rift that both sides perpetuate with astounding callousness for the toll it takes. I grew up in Ohio--small and white, and it was loathsome to use racial slurs or profiling. Of course, pockets of racism prevailed, but by and large it was offensive and absolutely not tolerated. I was shocked to come to a big, diverse city and find that instead of being MORE forward, I'd gone back in time 60 years. The number of people who think that because I'm white I'm an "ally" for their prejudices is sickening.

At 2/10/08, 6:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

matineeidol's reflections are level headed and reasonable, but isn't it is also reasonable to take offense at Gerald Thornton's comments? He was indeed defending his brother's indefensible actions, which any reasonable person would find offensive. So too the comment of the Webster Groves resident who claimed that Cookie was a "hero". In the past, perhaps, but not in the current context.

Take race completely out of the picture for a moment. Isn't it perfectly reasonable to be angry at Cookie Thorton, not only for the brutality of his actions, but also because it was absolutely beneath him as a person, from everything we know about his past? He was a better person than to have done this, and so we have a right to be disappointed and angry with him. The next question becomes what can be done to prevent such things from occurring in the future, which necessarily involves a very painful examination of the circumstances leading to this horrific event. If this examination includes the actions of the City Council, it must also include those around Cookie who might have had clues that this was coming. In neither case should the parties be judged, which is a very difficult thing to do. One can only hope that something positive can somehow result from this tragic event. At this point, it's just too early to conceive of this.

At 2/15/08, 12:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2/18/08, 1:44 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I removed the above comment. Anonymous, you are in need of some serious help. I hope you get it, and I will pray for you.

But do not comment here again.


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