Before beginning, I should note that it comes as no surprise to anyone that I hate Auburn. The Plainsmen are our oldest rivals, the rivals we have encountered most frequently, and, in my opinion, our most important and most bitter rivals. That said, some things transcend rivalries, and, as I noted in the comment thread regarding the sad news, this is one of them. Consequently, I feel moved to share the following general observations regarding recent events:
No, this is not analogous to Auburn fans tearing off pieces of the hedges. This is true for three reasons.
- As RedCrake noted, this was a premeditated act. At most, Auburn fans who go after the hedges enter Sanford Stadium joshing with their buddies, "If we win today, I’m going to get me a piece of that hedge!" I suspect the majority of Auburn fans who engage in that act do not give it even that much forethought; they just get caught up in the fervor of the moment. This doesn’t excuse it---it is a criminal act, and it ought to be treated as such; a few arrests and a few prosecutions would put a stop to that childish vandalism in a hurry---but "crimes of passion" are legally and morally distinguishable from premeditated actions such as the one taken by the Toomer’s Corner poisoner.
- A pilfered piece of the hedge is a souvenir, but its taking is not intended to harm the long-term health of the hedges themselves, and I am unaware of any hedge having endured such harm on account of Tiger fans’ vandalism. The Toomer’s Corner oaks are dying as a result of this act, and the actor apparently intended to kill them.
- Human health is not put at risk by attacks on the hedges. The herbicide used at Toomer’s Corner could get into the groundwater and endanger the physical safety of humans and animals.
Once again, this is not to minimize the childishness or illegality of Auburn fans going after the hedges; indeed, I hope this incident will make Auburn fans more appreciative of the fact that their attacks on our tradition are indefensible. The two actions, however, are not comparable.
No, this isn’t a reflection on Alabama fans. If any doubts existed upon this point, kleph’s rapid response put them to rest. It is important to remember that, as Warren St. John demonstrated in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, college football fans tend to be passionate people for whom college football is but one of their passions. Any question of the truth of this statement may be dispelled rapidly by disrespecting the superiority of Southern ladies to women from other regions, the utility of the Oxford comma, or the musical stylings of the Drive-By Truckers in a comment thread around here.
The sorts of people who shoot each other over the outcome of a college football game are the sorts of people who shoot each other over matters of even lesser importance. The sort of person who poisons a tree because it is a revered landmark of a rival team’s fan base is the sort of person who poisons a tree in his neighbor’s yard because of a boundary line dispute.
Nothing inherent in being a sports fan, or in being a fan of a particular team, renders this sort of behavior any less inexplicable or reprehensible. While I believe the Auburn police chief was setting the bar a little too low when he urged "all the Auburn fans to act with the class we always act with," the rest of his statement was right on the money: "This is the exception rather than the rule. This is a person who obviously has problems to do something like this."
As Jason Kirk alluded to earlier, jury selection is going to be darned interesting. Given the alleged motivation of the accused, the attorneys in the case are going to have to ask prospective jurors about their team affiliations. Any member of the panel who answers, "War Eagle!" is virtually certain to be excused for cause, and, if the Lee County prosecutor has the slightest intention of running for re-election, he’d better use his peremptory challenges to strike anyone who replies, "Roll Tide!"
In short, unless the jury pool contains a surprisingly high number of UAB boosters, being a college football fan in the Yellowhammer State is going to serve as a virtual disqualification from inclusion on this jury panel. This looks plenty bad enough to those of us who, being impassioned college football fans, at least have a context in which to understand this extreme action, even though none of us would condone it; imagine how bad it’s going to look to twelve people without even that frame of reference to use in compartmentalizing it. If I had to put money on it, I would wager that "Al from Dadeville" will not find the exercise of his Constitutional right to trial by jury to his liking.
Beyond that, all that remains is to express the heartfelt sympathies of Bulldog Nation to the Auburn Family. This was not our tradition, but it was a long-established one, and all of us in whose hearts is a place set apart for Athens---home to the hedges, the tree that owned itself, and the state botanical gardens---are saddened by the news.