Douglas Hughs, A Danger To The (Re)Public
Apr. 21, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — You’ve probably heard of Douglas Hughes before, but you probably don’t know him by name. You probably know him as the mailman who flew his gyrocopter onto the lawn of the Capital a year ago to deliver some letters to Congress. As CNN reports, he gave everyone plenty of notice about what he was going to do:
Before landing a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn Wednesday, Doug Hughes wrote about his intentions and the reasons behind them on a website called the thedemocracyclub.org.
“The point of the flight is to spotlight corruption in DC and more importantly, to present the solution(s) to the institutional graft,” the 61-year-old Florida postal carrier wrote in an online post titled “Your Pilot.”
“My flight is not a secret,” the post says. “Before I took off, I sent an Email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The letter is intended to persuade the guardians of the Capitol that I am not a threat and that shooting me down will be a bigger headache than letting me deliver these letters to Congress.”
Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian, Hughes’s stunt is the sort of thing that should make you smile. Doing anything with a gyrocopter is pretty funny. What he did is like throwing a pie in the face of a political figure or hopping past a TSA checkpoint on a pogo stick. They’re classic gags, and a gyrocopter seems like the aviation equivalent. Plus, violating rules that humorless bureaucrats take way too seriously in a silly and obviously ineffective way exposes their stupidity.
In Hughes’s case, it’s even funnier because he posted his intentions online and emailed the president about his plan. It was illegal to fly where he was going to fly, and it also seems he wasn’t licensed for what he was going to do. However, he gave authorities every opportunity to stop him.
The only flaw that I can find in his plan is that, rather than spotlighting government corruption, as was his intention, his stunt spotlighted government incompetence. Actions speak louder than words, and theirs spoke volumes. No matter how important the issue of corruption may be, that message is covered up by the shining example of government ineptitude his actions revealed.
Sadly, that same incompetent federal government also runs a justice system, and there are plenty of people involved in it who weren’t at all amused by what Hughes did. He pleaded guilty and is set for sentencing:
Hughes pleaded guilty in November to a felony of operating a gyrocopter without a license.
Prosecutors are asking for 10 months in prison, arguing that his flight from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington put countless lives at risk. In a court document they filed ahead of the sentencing hearing, they argued Hughes’ flight “put unsuspecting people in real danger, disrupted operations at the United States Capitol, and demonstrated a profound disrespect for the law and the legitimate rights of others.” Hughes “craved attention” and “violated important public safety laws because he wanted people to pay attention to his political views,” prosecutors wrote.
When I was a little kid, I figured out a little trick when someone would make me look foolish. Being small and dorky, and also having an older brother, I got my fair share of wedgies, swirlies, and wet willies. At one point, I realized that, if I pretended something caused actual harm rather than just embarrassment, I could freak the out the bullies. I’d just have to act like something really serious happened, and I could catch them off guard and maybe even get them into a little trouble. Of course, the phase didn’t last long, as I quickly realized that being a wimpy, over-reacting little tattletale is no way to go through life. But then again, I didn’t have prosecutorial power to put some muscle behind my histrionics. The Department of Justice, on the other hand, does.
What federal prosecutors are doing is essentially taking a page out of my childhood playbook. Rather than just pointing out that there’s a rule and that he broke it, thus meriting charges, they’re playing the public safety card. Not only does demanding ten months of prison lend some weight to the argument that they aren’t just prosecuting him for embarrassing them, but many people are likely to fall for claims about how Hughes somehow endangered unsuspecting people. Never underestimate how many people among us are terrified of their own shadows. They won’t notice that the only charge he pled to involved not having a license, and they certainly won’t consider that, if he’d really posed a threat to anyone at all, they would’ve gotten him on some sort of count for that as well.
Prosecutors’ arguments about Hughes disrupting operations and showing disrespect for the law are at least true, but that’s also the case with any instance of civil disobedience. It’s the point. You could say that about the people who participated in the Boston Tea Party as well as Rosa Parks, though landing a flying lawnmower in front of the capital is a lot sillier and sends a less obvious message than either of those examples. You could also make an argument that those people craved attention and violated important public safety laws.
It seems the sentence Hughes receives may say a lot, as his lawyers have made their position clear:
Hughes’ attorneys say he should be allowed to remain out of jail. Their statement to the court underscored that no one was injured as a result of Hughes’ flight. They called the stunt an “act of aerial civil disobedience” and a “freedom flight” and said it “was in the nation’s proud tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience.”
“The attention his flight gained, Mr. Hughes hopes, will force the nation to finally confront the issue of campaign finance rather than continue to ignore the problem. For this reason, Mr. Hughes should be considered a hero for his conduct,” his attorneys wrote.
When it comes to civil disobedience, there’s always some dour government lackey insisting that we must promote respect for the law, pushing the idea that we, as a society, are perched on the edge of a precipice, with anarchy just a step away. There are also cheerleaders for the disobedience, people who may attribute to it far more meaning to it than it really deserves. And there’s everything in between, as well.
A sentence without a period of confinement wouldn’t necessarily be an endorsement of Hughes’s lawyers’ view that their client did something more than an amusing stunt to push his preferred political cause. It would mostly just be a relatively fair sentence for a guy who broke an uncontroversial regulatory law to send a political message in a dramatic fashion.
If Hughes gets ten months, on the other hand, it will be a big victory for law and order. More importantly, it’ll also be a defeat for reason, as only the government’s spurious arguments about safety would support such a sentence for a crime whose only real victim was the faith of the public in the government’s ability to prevent a mailman in a flying lawnmower from delivering letters to Congress’ front lawn. Hopefully the judge isn’t too frightened to see that.