Evan Schwartz: Ignore the Westboro Church

On Nov. 11, members of the Westboro Baptist Church will picket at GW. They are protesting, in their own words, “to remind this nation that this next generation of young people have been raised for the devil himself.”

For those who don’t know, the Kansas-based group is the brainchild of pastor and former lawyer Fred Phelps. It looks to spread anti-homosexual, anti-Semitic, anti-military and pretty much anti-everything hatred across the country. His followers – of which there are roughly 70 – are known for carrying signs with such subtle slogans as “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates America” and the decidedly less subtle “You’re Going to Hell.” Next month, these signs will show up in D.C. again.

So what?

There seems to be a movement to counterprotest the Westboro picketers, as evidenced by a growing Facebook event created by The GW Patriot. The Patriot makes an excellent point: “The First Amendment gives the WBC the right to free speech; it does not shield them from principled criticism.”

But why deign to acknowledge WBC’s existence? To counterprotest this minor fringe group is to recognize its message, which is exactly what the Westboro Baptist Church wants. The group wants recognition, news stories, cameras – and protesters. It wants to incite anger in people because its members feeds on controversy.

The Westboro Baptist Church is not out lobbying to change policy, or secure votes for Phelps, or really accomplish anything other than waving signs at military funerals and synagogues. The church is not hurting anyone physically, attacking anyone with fists or weapons or threatening anything besides eternal damnation.

This is not to diminish the effect the Westboro Baptist Church has on people who spot them on the street. A few years ago, a friend visited me in New York City. While walking on 5th Avenue, we spied a small group of Westboro protestors outside of Temple Emanu-El, one of the largest synagogues in the world and the place where I became a bar mitzvah.

My friend is both gay and Jewish, and the church aims much of its vitriol at both of those groups. He had never heard of or seen Westboro protestors in his life, but he was visibly frightened. I explained to him that these people meant him no physical harm, and that they were a fringe group. I said the ignorant protestors belonged to a cult-like church devoted to a man whom the Kansas Supreme Court disbarred for calling a witness a “slut” while she was on the stand. But I still saw the fear on his face.

In spite of its fear-mongering, the WBC is not an influential group. These people are not neo-Nazis, terrorists or the Ku Klux Klan. They spew hatred almost indiscriminately. They are a group of fewer than 100 people who like to stir up trouble. They are not scary; in truth, they are a little sad.

So why should we counterprotest a bunch of people, including children, who are simply standing on a street with purposely inflammatory signs? This is a registered hate group with the Anti-Defamation League – anyone who takes it seriously is already prejudiced. Phelps himself is banned from entering the United Kingdom because of his extremist views, and in the U.S., he is not a threat when it comes to winning elections or passing legislation.

Why not just ignore the Westboro Baptist Church, as if it was a mosquito bite? If the entire country stopped wasting television time, blog posts and newspaper inches on 70 people out in Kansas, then the church would drift even further to the margins of society.

– The writer, a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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