The Lafayette, Calif., hillside memorial after it was vandalized last year
Crosses Not Theirs to Bear
Nothing like liberal hypocrisy to hint at why, in the end, opposition to the Iraq war in the United States can amount to little more than a hobby, an entertainment, a status symbol like a pair of cool eye-shades or a Prada bag, and why American involvement in the war goes on unabated, surging when it should be ending. George Bush knows that even his staunchest liberal opponents, the San Francisco Bay kind, are nothing but paper demonstrators. When it comes to putting their money where their public-consumption convictions are, they cut. They run. They shame. In San Francisco’s Bay Area, they’re doing so—and doing so falsely—in the name of the oldest conservative dogma: property rights.
Take Shelly Valerio. She’s anti-war all the way. “I really wish we weren’t in Iraq,” she told the Journal. “It’s causing such strife.” She’s 45. She’s a personal trainer, so she’s not going hungry, at least not in a place like the Bay Area. And she lives in Lafayette, a rich town of 24,000 just east of Berkeley (itself a one-time Ground Zero of anti-war movements, although not as much lately). In 1998, Valerio bought a four-bedroom house in Lafayette, paid $469,000 for it. She was planning to sell the home this year for about $1 million. But Valerio has a problem. His name is Jeff Heaton. Heaton has access to a hillside that neighbors Valerio’s home, with the hillside owner's blessing. On that hillside, Heaton and volunteers have been planting white, foot-high crosses. Thousands of them. Three thousand four hundred and seventy five, when the Journal last reported the count. The number should be up to 3,504 by now. Sounds Familiar? It’s the number of American soldiers killed in that thing still called “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Valerio is upset by the crosses. Very. Not for what they represent, mind you. God forbid. She’s not concerned about the dead of Iraq. She’s concerned about her property’s value, and what the crosses are doing to it. Her property’s value. “I would have helped them plant pretty flowers,” she tells the Journal. “But now my property value has shot down and the city won’t reassess what my home is worth.” She shouldn’t fret too much: the hillside, and therefore her home, also neighbor a train station and a highway. It’s not as if the memorial is desecrating Eden. But this is what being anti-war means in the United States. It stops at the edge of one’s property value, and of course one’s property. It might be pushing prejudice to imagine that Valerio drives a gas-guzzling SUV, too, whistling the Dixie Chicks as she burns another gallon of gas every fifteen miles, although the thought isn’t that much of a stretch. SUVs, like vaulted ceilings and suburban mansions, are universal toys. Liberals buy them as much as conservatives do, paying no heed to the consequences, justifying the buys with those old standard rationales: I worked for it. I’m owed it. It’s my life.
Well, that’s just it. it is, and it isn’t. It’s your life for theirs. Theirs, those schmucks represented by four thousand five hundred white crosses, sent to Iraq to protect nothing more than your right to a few gallons more, and die for it along the way. They’re not protecting freedom of course. Not even protecting property values in Lafayette, California. They’re dying for oil and a choosy strategic spot for American power to pivot from. It’s your life for theirs. Mrs. Valerio is now looking to down the ante. It’s her property value for their life. Just get them out of her sight. She has all the sympathy in the world form them, but let their death inconvenience someone else. Their death doesn’t belong as a reminder on a neighboring hillside. It doesn’t rate symbolic value, if the flipside is the devaluation of her property.
But bless her heart, Mrs. Valerio isn’t alone. Not in the Bay Area, where the median price for a home runs around $1 million. The Crosses, the Journal reports, “have sent the denizens of the town into an uproar. To a large number of residents that live in the city, the crosses are an eyesore that is drawing undue attention from pro- and antiwar factions. Real-estate agents have warned some residents their home prices are sure to go down if the crosses remain.” Never mind that the housing bubble has burst, that real-estate agents are looking for anything and anyone to blame but themselves for the end of a bubble they so wantonly inflated for six years. The crosses have nothing to do with real estate’s free fall, although Iraq, to some extent, does. The illusion of the war’s economic boon — this first-ever war fought by cutting taxes and requiring no sacrifice of Americans, especially not from their consumer and property values — could last only so long. At some point bills have to be paid. Times may be getting hard. Those hurting are on the lookout for scapegoats. Dead soldiers were scapegoated once. Why not scapegoat them again:
To safeguard their home values, Lafayette residents have now stormed into once-sparsely attended city-council meetings and demanded changes to local sign ordinances. On Monday [June 11], the city council is due to decide a measure that would limit the number of signs posted on a property. In March, residents also enlisted a local fire expert to call the crosses a fire hazard. That fire expert, Mark Harrison, Harrison Associates, based in Concord, Calif., says the wooden crosses could spark a fire similar to one that occurred 16 years ago in nearby Oakland, Calif., when nearly 2,500 homes were destroyed. "What they are doing up there isn't safe -- all that wood up on that hill," says Jim Minder, 54, a Lafayette resident and construction contractor. "Those crosses are just bunched up on each other. All you need is just a single match and then chaos."
Aren’t trees bunched up on each other on the same property? Quick: clear-cut them all. In any case, Heaton is spacing out the crosses some, although that will become difficult with time because the death rate of American soldiers is rising. He’s considering using steel crosses. Naturally, vandals, a U.S. Marine acting in character among them, have left their calling card. The Marine tore down a sign that listed the number of dead. Others like him have claimed, as military fetishists usually do, that the crosses dishonor men and women in uniform. Just before Christmas, vandals destroyed the same sign with black tar. Some people don’t like seeing the waste of the Iraq war, however pastoral the setting, in front of their nose. Better ignore the dead. There are more important things to worry about, like property values and what next to consume, although the San Francisco Chronicle quoted at least one councilman, Brandt Andersson, with clearer sense: “I sympathize with the people who put the memorial out. People ought to be thinking about these deaths more than most of us do day to day.”
I’m not denigrating property rights. They’re owed a measure of sacredness. But property owners have no right to the speculative value of their property. They’re owed no protection for what value might be lost if something entirely legal but not to their liking takes place on neighboring properties. To argue otherwise is to justify, under a new guise, the kind of bigotries that fueled neighborhood gangs calling themselves “associations” and driving off blacks or Jews or foreigners they didn’t like. In any case the memorial on the Lafayette hillside isn’t a denigration of rights. It’s a reminder of the denigration of lives, and of a nation’s purpose, in the name of a war few believe in anymore, but at a price fewer still are willing to face head-on. To be fair to the residents of Lafayette, droves of whom appeared before their city hall to debate the issue last year, most are in favor of the memorial. But you have to wonder how far those convictions extend. Most don’t live near the memorial, either. Those who do, for all their liberalism, want it gone.