Plucky 1st Amendment Beta Testers the Westboro Baptist Church are back in the news again, this time over an online battle between the group and the notorious hacktivists of Anonymous. It started on February 16 with a call to arms on AnonNews, announcing Westboro as the next target of Anonymous (previous recipients of Anonymous attacks and protests include Scientology, PayPal, and the Government of Tunisia.)
The time for us to be idle spectators in your inhumane treatment of fellow Man has reached its apex, and we shall now be moved to action. Thus, we give you a warning: Cease & desist your protest campaign in the year 2011, return to your homes in Kansas, & close your public Web sites.
Both new and old media jumped on board with breathless reports that Westboro’s websites were unavailable, victims of attacks by Anonymous. And indeed, godhatesfags.com (NSFW) has been unresponsive all week.
However, on February 20, another AnonNews press release denounced the original Westboro call to arms as a hoax–possibly perpetrated by Westboro themselves as a publicity stunt.
Dear Phred Phelps and WBC Phriends,
So we’ve been hearing a lot about some letter that we supposedly sent you this morning. Problem is,
we’re a bit groggy and don’t remember sending it.
To further muddy the waters, on Thursday, during David Pakman’s radio show, an alleged representative of Anonymous hacked the website live during an interview between himself, David, and Westboro firebrand Shirley Phelps-Roper (the video gives a good taste of the child-like hate-glee of Westboro members.)
So what is going on here?
Given the opaqueness of Anonymous, and the media-baiting tricksiness of Westboro, it’s impossible to yet divine what exactly has happened.
I’ve had some personal experience with Westboro Baptist Church during some of their recent picketing tours to San Francisco. Last year, I was part of an absurdist counterprotest of Westboro’s picket of Twitter’s HQ. Afterwards I found myself the subject of a few interviews by school newspapers and regular newspapers, and this required me to reflect on Westboro and their modus operandi. So here is my interpretation:
The sequence of events is not terribly important. It is, however, important to understand Westboro’s mission, which is not to be confused with that of Christian groups out to save sinners and recruit followers. Rather, Westboro’s sole purpose is to inform sinners (a word that in Westboro’s dictionary covers most everyone not part of their church) that they are hell-bound. It’s a simple mission and Westboro is famous for the lengths to which they will go to spread their message: from picketing funerals to the arguing their position before the Supreme Court. It’s also a mission that is impossible to thwart, if that is your purpose. Because every hack and counter protest generates media coverage which inevitably includes Westboro’s basic message. So in effect, what we are seeing is Westboro doing what they always do.
I call them 1st Amendment Beta Testers and I think that’s the best way to view them. I am reassured by their presence because their continued existence makes it abundantly clear that in American society fringe viewpoints are tolerated as well as the mainstream. The danger of Westboro is not in their message, which I find wildly absurd, but in their ability to provoke us into attacking everyone’s right to free expression in an effort to curtail theirs.
Daniel Gilbert says it best:
“We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.”
The BBC made a wonderful documentary about the Phelps Family (who make up most of the Westboro Baptist Church) in Louis Theroux’s The Most Hated Family in America. Another good source is Nate Phelps, estranged grandson to WBC founder Fred Phelps, who escaped the church on his 18th birthday and now speaks out against it.
Ars Technica has a great article on the decision making process of Anonymous.
Westboro has shown up a few times on Laughing Squid.