Cindy Hunter and her husband, Sam Nickels, opposed Bush's war against Iraq.
"For the last seven months, we've been putting up a sign on our property," says Hunter, a professor of social work at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
At first, the sign expressed the hope that the war could be avoided.
Then, says Hunter, they changed the sign to list the number of casualties, which they periodically updated, and sometimes to list the number of weapons of mass destruction found, which was always zero.
Hunter says the signs provoked a lot of good dialogue. But that's not all.
"People would come by at night every few weeks or so and break our sign up," she says. "And one time last spring we had eggs tossed against our house," which is a few blocks from campus.
To spare the sign, they decided to bring it up on their porch.
"About two months ago, I attached it to a wood column on the porch, thinking it might be less offensive and more out of the way. I calculated badly on that one," says Nickels, who teaches Spanish in a local middle school.
Nickels says the final sign they had on their porch read:
"8,109 Iraqi civilians.
6,000-plus U.S. wounded.
345 U.S. and British soldiers."
At 4:50 a.m. on October 20, Hunter and Nickels were asleep. So were their three children, ages 7, 8, and 11. And so was Adama Sow, a 30-year-old refugee from Mauritania, who was living upstairs.
"Our smoke alarm went off, and my husband I got out of bed and saw smoke and got the kids out and our roommate out," Hunter says. "It was immediately clear to me that the sign had burned because the only fire you could see was on the right front of the house where the sign used to be."
The fire department, from the very beginning, investigated it as a case of arson. "The sign had somewhat of a political message on it," Harrisonburg Fire Chief Larry Shifflett told the Daily News-Record. "It appears somebody may have set that sign on fire."
The fire department has since confirmed this hunch. "We have ruled out the accidental causes of the fire," says Arthur Miller, a captain with the fire department. "We have determined that the sign was intentionally set on fire, and that the fire spread to the living quarters of the house."
Hunter says the fire cost "about $50,000 in damage. The whole upstairs of our house was charred, and the firemen made a hole in the roof."
The family won't be able to return for six months, says Hunter.
"We lost the kinds of things you carry with you your whole life: papers you wrote in school, or clothes my mom saved for me and I've saved for my grandchildren," says Hunter. But she's just grateful her family and roommate got out safely.
The reaction from the campus and the Harrisonburg community has been "fantastic," Hunter says. On the evening after the fire, "70 or 80 people came to our house and held a candlelight vigil to support us and to express the outrage that someone would burn our house and put our lives in danger for a political sign," she says.
Residents have also offered material support to the family, as well. "Students have collected gift certificates, many local restaurants have donated meals, and storage facilities have offered us free space," she says.
On October 22, the Daily News-Record, which is a conservative paper, wrote a strong editorial entitled "Arson Assault." It said: "The arson at the home of an anti-war Harrisonburg couple was outrageous and must be condemned not only by those who believe in the First Amendment, but also by all those who believe in decency and humanity. The harassment of the Harrisonburg couple was appalling. . . . Violence and vandalism used to intimidate are not only criminal and cowardly, but profoundly un-American."
On October 28, about 150 people attended a rally on campus to support the family and free speech. "I Thought This Was America," one sign said, according to the Daily News-Record. And that evening, a forum was held entitled, "Is Silence the Price of Freedom?" One man wore a shirt with an American flag on it and the words: "This idea doesn't burn," the paper said.
Hunter says she is not deterred by the arson. "We will put our signs out again," she vows.
Her 11-year-old daughter was more apprehensive. "We'll put the sign back up after they catch the guy who did it," she said, according to her father.
Hunter cites an act of solidarity that has comforted the family.
"A lot of people in the community have made their own signs to put in their own yards so it's not only us," she says. "On Saturday afternoon, we went to a gathering where people were making signs, and my kids helped make some, too."
Hunter is concerned about the effect the fire has had on Adama Sow, the refugee who was living upstairs.
"This was very difficult for him, probably more emotionally difficult for him than for us, maybe because he's already experienced the loss of life due to this kind of hatred," she says.
Sow is from Mauritania, West Africa. His father, a teacher, was imprisoned and tortured there, and he eventually died from torture-related injuries, according to Hunter and Sow. Hunter actually knew Sow's father in Mauritania. She was in the Peace Corps there in the mid-1980s, and he taught her French.
Sow came to the United States and first lived in New York. But after 9/11, "we invited him to come down and live with us because New York was very expensive, and it was traumatic for him to be there," Hunter says.
Sow, who is studying computers at James Madison University, is unsettled by the arson.
"It's scary, it's very scary," he says. "It makes you feel like maybe you have to be very careful."
Looking back, Nickels and Hunter themselves are trying to come to terms with this event.
"My initial reaction was, I couldn't believe it happened," Nickels says. "Then I had a feeling of sadness, sadness that this kind of intolerance was happening, and especially that this kind of person has not found a way to express constructively his own anger about what's going on. I don't feel anger toward this person, despite the loss. I feel anger toward those who foster the kind of an atmosphere in which this kind of action can take place."
Nickels says he's been having nightmares about people breaking in and setting fires to his house. He also says he's a bit edgy.
"There was a bump in our rented house the other night so I ran upstairs to see if I could find anything," he says. "It was midnight. I then ran outside to make sure no one had thrown a firebomb on the roof. It turns out my son had bumped against the wall. It's that paranoia that settles in."
For her part, Hunter cannot bring herself to believe that the arsonist intended to kill her and her family. "I still just feel like it was somebody who didn't know they were going to burn down my house or endanger people's lives. I need to believe that for my own peace of mind."
And while she is grateful the community has rallied behind her and her family, she says, "We weren't planning to be the peace poster child of Harrisonburg."
© Copyright 2003 The Progressive, Madison, WI