In 2006, US Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq.
His body was brought home to Baltimore for burial with honors.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church showed up at the funereal to preach the word of their small and hateful and evil God.
Corporal Snyder’s father, Albert, sued Westboro Baptist Church for, among other things, emotional distress.
A federal jury awarded Snyder $11 million in damages.
Westboro appealed, the damages were reduced to $5 million.
Westboro appealed again and the ruling was overturned altogether.
And then came the final insult, Albert Snyder, who had lost his son in Iraq and had endured the hatred and unwarranted persecution at the hands of this bizarre and malignant travesty of humanity, was ordered to pay Westboro Baptist Church $16,000 in court fees.
It’s not over yet – the case heads to the Supreme Court of the United States next.
I am certain that most of you are at least passing familiar with this story. It’s been in the news for the last two weeks. A number of my friends have blogged about it. The pundits have waxed pompous and feculent over it, Bill O’Reilly himself has apparently offered to pay Snyder's fine en toto – though I suspect the money will come from Fox’s advertising budget and not out of Bill’s personal savings account, but I could be wrong (and if I am, and O’Reilly does make good on his promise from his own pocket, well then good on him. It’s a hell of gesture and one that deserves the sincere thanks of all). Those of us who come from the military are certainly aware of it – we could hardly be otherwise.
I’ve received a number of emails and messages asking my opinion and wondering when they’ll see an outraged rant on this subject here on Stonekettle Station.
I don’t have a rant.
I do have some thoughts – I don’t think you’ll like them.
First and so there is no mistake: I think that Westboro Baptist Church is an abomination. I think its founder and prophet and head asshole, Fred Phelps, is a foul, revolting, sub-human piece of shit. No, scratch that. Shit at least can be used for fertilizer, Phelps and his followers don’t even rate that, they are a pox, a pestilence, a poison on the land. But - and here comes the part that some of you aren’t going to like very much – I just don’t see their message as being all that different from a number of other, more mainstream, religions.
I can name the churches. I can name the religions. And if you’re honest, so can you. Some are Christian. Some are Muslim. Some are nice and polite and wear pointy hats. Some are full of fire and brimstone and passion. But their message is the same. Gay = Bad. Gay = burn in hell. Tolerate gays, accept gays = destroy the country. Now you can whore it up however you like, hate the sin and love the sinner, whisper the word homosexual instead of shouting fag! I don’t care. Fundamentally, the message of Westboro is exactly the same as that preached from pulpits and TV sets and radio stations across the country and around the world every single day – in the American Midwest and the Middle East. No different. Hate is hate. Intolerance is intolerance. Fear is fear. Period. Westboro doesn’t have the corner on it, they’re just more obnoxious about it.
Please. Save it. You damned well know I’m right. Don’t try to tell me why your religion, who sweetly peaches every Sunday how your loving savior Jesus is going to damn the homos to hell to burn forever in the fires of eternal torment, is any different just because you’re polite about it. Don’t. Just don’t. Spare me the hypocrisy.
Second – and here’s the next part you’re not going to like – I think Albert Snyder is going to lose his case before SCOTUS, and I’m not sure he shouldn’t.
Again, understand something here: I’m a veteran. I fought for this country. I spent my entire life in uniform. I have the utmost respect for those who have given their lives the service of this nation. I think the actions of Westboro are despicable and I would cheerfully help the Marines kick the ever living shit out of these people and anyone else who would desecrate the funeral of a fallen Marine. And I would derive great satisfaction from it.
But I am a private citizen, not the government.
Freedom of speech means exactly that – the freedom to speak your mind (in the proper venue, and we’ll come back to that. Bear with me for a minute). I understand Albert Snyder’s pain, I do, and I think forcing him to pay Westboro’s court costs is a fucking travesty of justice on a grand scale.
However, that’s what happens when you lose.
Snyder knew what the possible consequences were going in – and if he didn’t, his lawyers certainly did. Having to foot the court costs was one of those consequences. In this case it is particularly egregious given the circumstance, but it’s not unusual or outside of normal judicial guidelines – it happens every single day and most people are good with it. The potential to end up paying those fees helps cut down on frivolous lawsuits (and I’m not saying that Snyder's case was frivolous, so don’t go there). Snyder sued Westboro, not the other way around and this is one of the risks you take.
Yes, it’s outrageous. Yes. But, here’s the thing, the judge, the jury, can not make decisions based on emotion. They must obey the letter of the law, no exceptions. And in this case, Westboro was in compliance with the law. Their protest was outside the cemetery at the specified distance in compliance with state and federal law. They were on public, not private land. They did not accost anybody. Their message was massively offensive, offensive to the Snyder family, offensive to the Corps, offensive to every veteran such as myself, and offensive to many Americans. But it wasn’t illegal. No more so than those Christian protestors who wave pictures of aborted fetuses and shout hatred and condemn their fellow citizens and their country to hell every single day outside of every single abortion clinic in this country. To win, Snyder had to prove emotional distress as a result of the protest, and he tried – but in the end he lost. Proving emotional distress, empirically, legally, is extremely difficult – and for damned good reason. Snyder lost, and in the end he was required to pay the costs of the people he sued. Those are the rules.
I think that SCOTUS is going to have a very, very difficult time saying any different – as much as they may want to.
Westboro can’t be treated any different than anybody else. Westboro can’t be held to a higher standard than those aforementioned abortion protesters. The law cannot single out one church, one belief, one religion, one viewpoint over all others and apply different rules to it. No matter how revolting such a thing is. We Americans prize freedom of speech so much that we allow Nazis and communists and the KKK to march in our streets – so long as they obey the law – and for our own sake SCOTUS can’t make an exception for Westboro Baptist Church just because the majority of Americans would love nothing better than to see them dragged to death behind a Marine Amphibious Assault Vehicle, me included – in fact, I’ll drive.
Third – and here’s the rest of it, the part you’re really not going to like – you ought to be ashamed. Yes. That’s right. Oh not all of you Americans – but one hell of a lot of you. All of you great patriots who thought you could fight a war without loss, without blood, without sacrifice. All of those of you great patriots who let the fallen come home for damned near seven years, hidden away in metal boxes, off-loaded out of sight and out of mind at Dover Air Force Base. You sent us off to great fanfare and cheers and glory and the sound of trumpets, but where were you when the bodies started coming back? The 24 hour news channels showed the Navy sailing from the harbors and the Marines and Soldiers boarding the transports and the fighters and bombers rotating off the runways headed to Iraq and Afghanistan – but somehow, somehow, never managed interrupt your dinner with images of those cold silver flag-draped coffins. Where was your outrage then? When the fallen came home in boxes to be buried with only the tears of their widows and widowers, of their children, of their parents, of their brothers in arms? Where were you then? Everyone of you who drives past the America flag every single day with your eyes averted, tooling along in your giant gas guzzling hummers and who have the audacity to complain that this war is being fought for oil. Those of you weekend patriots who think that as long as you slap a $3 magnetic yellow ribbon made in China on the back of that same hummer you’ve done your duty by honoring the fallen. All of you disrespectful sons of bitches I’ve seen cutting up at the USS Arizona Memorial or letting your kids run fuck all over squealing and yelling before the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington or of all you assholes who stood behind me talking on your cell phones during the national anthem on Memorial Day. Yes, you. Tell me again about respect for the fallen.
Bottom line, there are only 90 of these Westboro bastards. Ninety. There’s about 305 million of us. I think we’ve got them outnumbered and surrounded by a significant fraction.
Here’s what you do.
- Help Albert Snyder pay off those legal fees. Send him $10, send him $20 if you’ve got it. It only takes a minute. Sure, it’s likely that money will ultimately end up in Fred Phelps pocket, but that’s not the point. The point is we, Americans, help share Albert Snyder's burden. His son died for us, it’s the very least we can do.
- Write to your congressman and agitate for the laws regarding military funerals to be changed, enhanced, strengthened. SCOTUS doesn’t make the law, their job is make sure the law complies with the Constitution – the same Constitution that Lance Corporal Snyder died for. Westboro is entitled to their 1st Amendment rights, but those rights have limits (limits that have been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court) and those rights have responsibilities.
- When Westboro comes to your town, gather with your friends and neighbors and community - and sing. Yes that’s right, sing. Surround these bastards a thousand deep and drown them out. Stand outside the funeral of your fallen Marines and sing the Marine Corps Hymn at the top of your lungs – trust me, there’ll be enough Marines around to help you learn the words. Sing The Caissons for your fallen Soldiers, and Anchors Aweigh for your Sailors and send your Airmen off into the Wild Blue Yonder and fuck Wesboro Baptist Church. Stand the watch, 24/7 until they leave. They have a right to exercise their voice, so do you.
- And the next time the national anthem plays turn off your damned phone, take the headphones out of your ears, shut up, stand up straight, put your hand over your heart and remember all those who served and sacrificed and bled and died so that you might be free. When you stand before the memorials, when you stand on the grass of the national cemeteries, show some respect.
- One last thing, listen. Listen to message of Westboro Baptist Church. Listen. Hear it? Hear the hatred? Hear the intolerance? Hear the fear? Hear the perversion of everything that makes us Americans in the first place? Ask yourself how your religion is any different – if fundamentally, you’re preaching the same exact message.
You wanted my opinion, you got it.