December 17, 2012

There are few situations so terrible that they can’t be made worse by a visit from the Westboro Baptist Church.

On Saturday, one of the leaders of the group dedicated to threatening to show up at funerals with unpleasant signs sent out some tweets implying they were coming to Connecticut to picket the funerals of those slain in Newtown on Friday. The story prompted the hacktivist group Anonymous to release what they said was a list of Westboro members’ names and contact information. No doubt the group, known for its commitment to genuine awfulness, frenzied pursuit of publicity and stubborn insistence that everything awful that happens in this world is because we have disappointed God by supporting gay marriage, is getting a lot of irate phone calls. 

What to do with the Westboro Baptist Church? If only we knew.

Ignoring it is not an option. Too many people agree on its terribleness for us to ever stop talking about it. I cannot vouch for this, but I am pretty sure that on days when the Crips and Bloods call things off and have group picnics, they spend all their time discussing how distasteful they find Westboro Baptist. Besides, if we ever ignored the church, its members might actually follow through on the threats to show up!

How about labeling Westboro a “hate group“? Anonymous seems to think this is a good solution. One petition on the White House Web site along this line (there are a few) already has thousands of signatures — more than 95,000, when I last checked.

This troubles me.

Designating the church as a “hate group” won’t solve this. Its members’ words are hateful, yes. But it requires no special legal status to indicate that they are spewing deranged vitriol. That’s obvious in the words themselves. That’s obvious in their Web site URL. That’s obvious in the thousands of people from all walks of life who come together to create angel walls, blocking the church’s messages from view.

And that is the strange blessing of the Westboro Baptist Church: It brings people together. Remember when the KKK denounced it? When do you have large swaths of Americans nodding to themselves and saying, “I have to agree with the KKK on this one.” That’s certainly why we keep writing about the church. Since He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Invoked-In-Comparisons-In-Arguments-On-The-Internet, it’s hard to find anyone that we so readily agree is just, well, irredeemably awful.

So this new push to brand the church as a “hate group” makes little sense to me. Yes, Westboro is awful. But America has been traditionally resistant to banning even the most hateful speech. Free speech is meaningless if it’s limited to speech you want to hear. The darkest moment is always just before Westboro members show up. But their hideous signs serve no larger purpose than to attract attention. Their constant tweets threatening to protest funerals are tired and tiresome. It’s all empty, deliberate provocation. And the response to that sort of stupidity is not to flag it or ban it. It’s to let it speak for itself and to be drowned out by thousands of indignant and compassionate responses.

They prove that just because you are being yelled at from both sides does not mean that you are right. Sometimes it means that you are simply, irredeemably wrong.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.