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Mirecki affair

By Gerard Harbison

Posted December 26, 2005

Preamble

It is not my wish to rehash the entire history of the Mirecki affair, but rather to focus on the assault on Mirecki and the reaction. I shall therefore simply give a brief summary of the background. Paul Mirecki is a biblical scholar of some considerable distinction, having some years ago unearthed an early account of Jesus's life, the Gospel of the Savior. He teaches in the Religious Studies department at the University of Kansas, and was until recently Chair of that department. In keeping with modern biblical scholarship, he approaches early Christian manuscripts, and other material contemporaneous with them, with objectivity and skepticism, rejecting Christian premises such as divine revelation and the apostolic authorship of the Gospels. This has led to some friction in his classes, when students who have a deep religious conviction of the truth of such premises are confronted with dispassionate analysis. Mirecki's own religious convictions do not appear to be a matter of public record, but he is faculty advisor to the Society of Open-minded Atheists and Agnostics (SOMA) at KU, the single freethinking student society in a university with 64 religious student organizations.

Mirecki entered the limelight first by proposing a course which would treat Intelligent Design as a form of mythology; and then when his emails on an off-campus listserv used by SOMA were made public, revealing him to have boasted injudiciously that his course would be a 'slap' in 'the big fat faces' of the fundies. Mirecki also made several other remarks on that list antithetical to fundamentalist Christians. Following threats by fundamentalist legislators to the university budget, university administrators condemned his remarks and withdrew the course, although later they claimed to be searching for an alternative instructor.

The beating

On the evening of Monday, December 6, various Kansas and Missouri newspapers and a local television station reported that Paul Mirecki had been treated and released after an apparent roadside beating. Summarizing the salient points of the Monday evening reports, from a post by PatrickHenry on Free Republic (cited because the KC Star later updated the linked page):

Lt. Kari Wempe, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, said a deputy was dispatched to Lawrence Memorial Hospital after receiving a call around 7 a.m. regarding a battery. She said Mirecki reported he was attacked around 6:40 a.m. in rural Douglas County south of Lawrence....Wempe said Mirecki drove himself to the hospital after the attack....(and that) Mirecki described the suspects as two white men between 30 and 40 years of age. One of the men was described as wearing a red visor-like ball cap and wool gloves. Mirecki said the men left in a large pickup truck.

Mirecki himself told the Journal-World

he was driving to breakfast when he noticed the men tailgating him in a pickup truck. "I just pulled over hoping they would pass, and then they pulled up real close behind," he said. "They got out, and I made the mistake of getting out." He said the men beat him on the head, shoulders and back with their fists, and possibly a metal object...."I'm mostly shaken up, and I got some bruises and sore spots."

Mirecki also said to the Daily Kansan (the KU student newspaper)

that he spent between three and four hours at the hospital. He said his injuries included a broken tooth.

Andrew Stangl, president of the student group Mirecki mentored, was quoted as follows:

He said Mirecki, who is the group's faculty adviser, was adamant that the beating was related to the recently canceled course. "That absolutely shocked me," he said, "because people don't do that in a civilized society."

Next day, the Journal World reported a phone interview with Mirecki

"I didn't know them, but I'm sure they knew me"...Mirecki said in a phone interview that the incident happened as he was "going out for breakfast, taking a drive and thinking about things." He declined to say exactly where it happened, and the sheriff's department did not release the location, except to say it was south of Lawrence [...]

Mirecki said that when the pickup truck began tailgating him, he stopped his vehicle hoping it would pass. Instead, the men pulled up directly behind him [...] "They got out, and I made the mistake of getting out," he said. Mirecki said the beating began almost instantly. The men punched him about the head and shoulders and struck him with a metal object, he said.

About 6:40 a.m., sheriff's deputies were called to Lawrence Memorial Hospital to take a report on the incident. Mirecki was treated at the hospital and released. "I'm mostly shaken up, and I got some bruises and sore spots," he said.

The Daily Kansan reported Mirecki had been X-rayed and gotten a CT-scan, and had a chipped tooth.

The next day, further details emerged. Mirecki was interviewed a second time by the police, and from the police report, the Journal World was able to clarify the location somewhat.

A report released by the Douglas County Sheriff's Office said the location was "unknown" and listed it as south of 31st Street on either East 1400 Road or East 1500 Road.

Louisiana Street turns into East 1400 Road outside the city limits. Haskell Avenue becomes East 1500 Road.

The Journal World also identified what it regarded as a discrepancy in the story, in that Mirecki said he called the police from the side of the road, whereas the police were dispatched to the hospital. The time was specified as having started at 6:20 a.m., and was reported at 6:40 a.m.

On Wednesday, the interim Dean of his college at University of Kansas announced Mirecki had resigned from the chairmanship of the Religious Studies department. It was noted the resignation letter was on administration letterhead. On Friday, Mirecki announced he had been pressured into resignation as chair, and had retained a lawyer to deal with the University and the Douglas County police, who had not taken his complaint seriously, and had seized his car and his computer. He gave an interview with the Lincoln Journal World and posed for a photograph, displaying a bruised arm and two rather impressive black eyes.

Analysis

Despite the furious disbelief from some quarters, there are no obvious discrepancies in Mirecki's story. Some people may find it odd that a man under some stress, and probably suffering from insomnia, might drive out on dirt roads in the country pre-dawn and in frigid temperatures. Since I myself, on occasion, deal with insomnia by going for a 3 a.m. walk in the woods with a night vision scope, I'm the wrong person to comment on this.

The rest of the story hangs together; if Mirecki were returning to Lawrence to have breakfast, the site of his alleged assault, on East 1400 or East 1500 south of 31st, would be a plausible route to First Watch, reputedly the best place to have breakfast in Lawrence, at the 25th block of Iowa street. That a man who'd just been subjected to a sudden assault might not know which section road he was on at the time is hardly surprising. We don't know how much identifying information he gave to the police, but to assume it has all been released to the public is foolhardy. And while his injuries do not indicate a severe beating, his black eyes indicate he was struck at least once on the bridge of the nose. The discrepancy of the phone call is hardly a discrepancy at all; how unreasonable would it for him to have called the police from the site of the incident, and announced he was going to drive himself to the hospital, and would meet them there?

As for his assailants, there is no reason to expect they stalked him; rather, he may simply having been driving slowly, inducing them to tailgate, a response followed by counter response led to a violent confrontation; and it is entirely possible one of the assailants recognized Mirecki from news accounts. He was prominent in the news for several weeks beforehand, and probably had items displayed in or on his car, such as a parking tag, identifying his as a faculty member of KU. Finally, it is not unusual that two men in a pick-up might be out and about in rural Kansas at his time of year. It is hunting season, and it is not unknown for hunters to have a little something to warm them up, impairing their judgment. And there is no doubt Mirecki was struck in the face at least once.

The fact the Mirecki's computer was seized does suggest the police did not believe his story. Furthermore, since the computer he uses at his office would likely be the University's property, it could have been done without his permission, and the indication the police were investigating a possible fabrication on his part might well have impelled the University's infelicitously timed move to force his resignation.

Finally, while there have been several recorded instances of fabricated hate crimes recently, most notably Kerry Dunn at Pomona, and at Iowa State, Dr. Mirecki's alleged beating does not fit the usual pattern of such crimes. He does not fit the profile of a typical hate crime fabricator, and such fabrications have usually been accompanied by written material that identified the fabricated incident as a hate crime. Had Mirecki wished to construct such an incident, he surely would have made sure of details such as the location. There would have been written threats or other physical evidence.

Therefore there is really no good reason to disbelieve Mirecki's story. It is likely most of the public doubters are impelled by hostility to Mirecki or a dislike of the story's implications.

The reaction

Sen. Kay O'Connor (R-Olathe) was reported by the Daily Kansan as saying
whoever beat him should be "prosecuted to the fullest."
"If they try to cover themselves under the mantle of being Christian or being Christian people, sorry Charlie," she said. "They're just thugs."

This was a change from her somewhat sinister comments prior to the beating: "I'm surprised that something more severe isn't happening to this teacher who obviously has a hatred for Christians."

Editorial writer Phillip Brownlee from the Wichita Eagle even suggested, prior to the beating, that Dr. Mirecki be physically assaulted:

But KU officials - though not state lawmakers - still need to get tough on Mirecki. A chairman of a religion department shouldn't be hostile to conservative Christianity. How about making Mirecki go through a paddling line at one of KU's fraternities?

Veiled threats prior to the beating morphed into incredulity afterwards. Mike Adams, a conservative criminology professor at the University of the North Carolina Wilmington, who has broken some significant stories in the past, most recently the call by NCSU adjunct professor Kamau Kambon for the extermination of the white race, wrote a smarmy little column on the incident, in which he fakes a 'no comment' interview. One would have thought a criminology professor would be able to recognize real black eyes.

Michelle Malkin claimed to be skeptical about the Paul Mirecki beating, but followed up her 'skeptical' blog entry with a set of links to hate crime hoaxes.

Later, however, she published a link to the Mirecki photograph, and seemed to back off a little.

John Altevogt, who originally infiltrated the SOMA listserv and publicized Mirecki's postings, also openly accused Mirecki of faking the incident:

"He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left," Altevogt said. "The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor."

It was on web forums, however, that the full fundamentalist fury against Mirecki was released.

Here is a sickening sample of the response on the conservative web-site Free Republic.

Gaybashing

Religious Right FReepers' theories mostly involved self-inflicted injuries, or homosexuality, or some combination: e.g. ExPatGator
I'll bet a dollar to a donut that his homo lover smacked him around Dr Eckleburg, a Christian Reconstructionist, agreed
He probably picked them up in a bar.
The gay theme just wouldn't go away. Can we say obsession? From Lou D: He's either wandered to Kansas from the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" or he's full of it.
...and more from tallhappy:
How convenient. The libs will go all Matthew Shepherd.
And of course, if he's a homo, as kajingawd suggests, the evidence of beating is just disease lesions:
HA...bruises and sores are probably caused by pestilence and crack/aids. Look at that filth

Schadenfreude

Some were unenthused with analysing the crime itself, and were instead disturbed by the unprofessionalism with which the beating was handled.
I hope they catch those two incompetent rednecks for not even doing a simple assault properly!
On the same theme, from kimosabe31, who also likes to quote the Bible:
Whatever Mirecki got wasn't bad enough.
kimosabe31 was so excited at his own wit (or maybe his ability to type an entire sentence, period and all), he posted the same thing twice Wherease F.J. Mitchell opined the cause was Dr. Mirecki's appearance:
A face almost everyone would love to stick a fist in. Questioning suspects will go something like this: Did you beat up the Proffessor? No but I would love to do so
Another helpful suggestion from Muzzle_em:
Too bad they didn't break his knees.
Some FReepers, like wardaddy, were distressed at their lack of empathy:
I'm supposed to feel bad I know. The fact that I don't makes me a long knife right?
FReeper Go Gordon opined that Mirecki got what was coming to him:
I don't know that I wish him well. If he is spewing and spreading anti- religious hatred, I say he deserved it. Yes we have free speach. But all that means is you won't get arrested. That doesn't entitle you to not pay a price for your actions.
FReeper LK44-40 compared Miercki's beating to another famous incident that brought joy to his heart:
I am about as concerned about this fellow's little scrape as I am about that queer that got beaten up and tied to a fence on a chilly Wyoming night.

Yes, of course he's Christian:

Well, actually, I believe the Lord left us a more ambiguous commentary which you are using selectively to claim Him on your side.
But truly the most crass of all was FReeper BOAZO...


The management of FReeper public was quite aware of all of this. After about a day, they removed some of the most obviously violent posts, but let many of the others remain. Since Free Republic is usually willing to remove posts it disapproves of, and ban the offending poster, one can only assume Jim Robinson approves of the posts above. Indeed, only a month ago, a FReeper called dsc called for the use of bloodshed against academics who disparage religion. The moderators were alerted, and did nothing.
The moderators however banned a Roman Catholic FReeper whose only offense, apparently, was to question the Christianity of the yobs quoted above