E-mailing with Evil: Covering Westboro Baptist Church

Reporter’s Notebook

Often my job as a news reporter gives me the chance to talk to fascinating, thoughtful people whom I’d otherwise never get to meet. Other times, it puts me in contact with characters who make me want to reach for the brain bleach.

This week was one of the latter occasions, as I wrote a Forward story about Jewish institutions’ response to the Westboro Baptist Church, a virulently hateful group that decided about six months ago to start protesting synagogues and Jewish centers with signs declaring “God Hates Jews,” and worse.

It says a lot about the Westboro church that their antisemitic protests are far from the vilest thing they’ve done. They’re known as the “God Hates Fags” people, and they protest military funerals, claiming that U.S. service members’ deaths are divine punishment for our nation’s sinfulness, particularly our tolerance of homosexuality. They also protested the funeral of the security guard who died defending the Holocaust museum this past summer; a memorial for the 2006 Sago Mine disaster victims; and they planned to protest the funerals of five Amish schoolgirls who were murdered in 2006, until a syndicated radio host bribed them to stay away with the offer of free air time.

In summary, they’re just awful, awful people.

Of course, in my 13 years as a news reporter, I’ve interviewed plenty of people I don’t like. Often, people think it must be hard for reporters to be objective when we’re writing about people who don’t share our political views, but honestly I’ve never found that to be much of a problem. For me, the bigger challenge is staying even-handed with garden-variety jerks — people who, for whatever reason, are combative, arrogant, condescending or just plain mean. That’s when I have to try extra hard to stay fair in my reporting and writing.

Shirley Phelps-Roper, the daughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps and current spokesperson for the group, is no garden-variety jerk. She responded promptly to my voicemail and e-mail, and thanked me graciously for my questions about why Westboro had chosen to target Jews. Her 1,600-word response was well written, without the spelling and grammar errors that characterize the missives of most antisemites. Aside from the fact that every sentence oozed with hate, she was a perfectly lovely interview subject. Coming face to face with the civility of evil is disconcerting. If you met this woman in the grocery store, and she wasn’t wearing her “God Hates Fags” T-shirt, she would probably seem like a nice lady.

I tried to keep my responses to Phelps-Roper brief, and I tried to stay polite. It was my job as a reporter to elicit answers that would help my readers better understand the story; it wasn’t my job to try to argue this woman out of her hatred, and I doubt I could have succeeded there. My only concession to my distaste for Phelps-Roper was to omit my usual e-mail sign-off of “Best Regards” or “Cheers.” I reasoned that I do not hold her in high regard, nor do I wish her cheer.

But that symbolic omission seemed rather lame. I knew that just by communicating with Phelps-Roper, I was satisfying her desire for media attention. Was I an enabler, or an appeaser? No one wants to be Neville Chamberlain in 1938; we’d all rather see ourselves as Winston Churchill in 1940, fighting them on the beaches and on the landing grounds and in the streets. “We shall fight them with polite but curtly worded e-mails” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

In my last communication to Phelps-Roper, I was tempted to say something, to get in some kind of dig. I toyed with the idea of writing, “I hope that God blesses you and fills your heart with His infinite love.” Which is a sentiment I actually believe. I’m not the most theologically sophisticated person, but I do hope that one day these Westboro people will see that God is love, not hate, and they’ll change their ways. And that would have been classier than saying, “I hope God strikes you with lightening the next time you protest a funeral.”

But I’m not the kind of person who sends off religious wishes in e-mails. It’s just not me, and it’s unprofessional. I’m a reporter, not a missionary. I faced the same question as Jewish organizations targeted by her church: Argue with her, or take the high road? Ignore, or engage? I let my professional role guide me into a path of neutrality, despite my misgivings about e-mailing politely with evil. I hope that I have chosen sides, though, by shining a light on the efforts of those who rebuke the hatred of Phelps-Roper and her ilk. As for turning her heart away from hatred — or a well-timed thunderstorm — I’ll leave that in the hands of a higher power.

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