Somewhere in Kansas, an elderly man lay dying in a hospice facility. Across the country, and indeed, the world, people celebrate the news. Many even accept it as a victory.
But can any one person truly be so evil as to legitimize the celebration of his or her demise?
The elderly man I speak of is, of course, Fred Phelps, founder of the hate group known as the Westboro Baptist Church.
If you’re unfamiliar, let me give you a not-so-quick rundown:
• The Westboro Baptist Church, which now mainly consists only of Phelps family members, was founded as a branch of a legitimate baptist church in Topeka, Kansas in 1955.
• In 1991, the WBC began picketing at a local park, claiming it was a hotbed of anonymous homosexual activity. In the years since, the Westboro Baptist Church has devolved into an what is described by the Anti-Defamation League and other civil rights agencies as a “hate group”. Hate groups are, by definition, any group that advocates hatred and/or violence towards a specific sect of people based on their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
• In the years since their initial campaign, the WBC lays claim to protesting the funerals of 42,000+ homosexuals, fallen soldiers, AIDS patients, and anyone they deem to have contributed to the current state of the world, which they view as an abomination. They also picket events they see as related to homosexuality such as pop concerts and football games.
• The WBC uses extremist language in their picketing, displaying brightly-colored signs emblazoned with slogans such as, “God Hates Fags”, “Thank God for 9/11”, and “God Hates America”.
• Their activities have resulted in many legal precedents being set. Former President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act into law, prohibiting protests within 150 feet of any nationally-recognized cemetery from an hour before to an hour after a military funeral. Several states have also enacted laws establishing no-picketing buffer zones around funerals. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill that extends the buffer zone to 300 feet and doubles the time to 2 hours.
• Despite widespread condemnation, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Phelps’ First Amendment right to free speech in Snyder v. Phelps. In the case, the father of a fallen Marine attempted to sue the Phelpses for defamation after the WBC picketed his son’s funeral. It was the Court’s opinion that the WBC “stayed well away from the memorial service”.
As the church’s founder, leader, and one of its most vocal mouthpieces, Fred Phelps has induced the ire of a great deal of the nation. Between protesting against homosexuals, dead soldiers, and football, Phelps and his family have given liberals and conservatives something to agree on - the WBC are some bad, bad folks.
But, I refer back to my earlier question - in spite of the laundry list of reasons to despise Fred Phelps and all that he stands for, is it acceptable to actually celebrate the news of his impending death? Is it okay to celebrate the death of any human being at all?
The quickest to answer that question might be those who lived through World War II. With the death of Adolf Hitler, many saw hope of that terrible war finally ending, and of the Nazi regime crumbling to the ground.
However, the quickest answer is rarely the right one. While the Nazis rule over Germany did collapse shortly thereafter, the war was far from finished. There was still the Japanese aspect to deal with, and even now, in the zenith of American Capitalism, you still see remnants of the culture and symbolism adopted by the Nazi Party. Similarly, Osama bin Laden was allegedly killed years ago, yet there’s no mention to any end of “The War on Terror™”. This is proof that while man is capable of death, destroying an ideal, no matter how deranged, is nearly impossible.
Fred Phelps’ message of hate will continue. It will not die with him; it will endure in his family and their followers. So why do we allow ourselves to also be poisoned by it? Why do we celebrate his death in the same way his followers celebrate the death of American soldiers?
The Germans have a word for this feeling: schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a word used to describe the feeling of joy derived from the suffering of others. There’s also an English word for it, but that wouldn’t make me sound pretentious at all, and where’s the fun in that?
The point is we do it because we’re human. The desire for vengeance comes with the gift of higher-cognitive abilities; it’s something only seen in humans and sometimes crows. When we feel an injustice has been committed, we gain a primal need for the wrong to be righted. When the parties responsible for said injustice are thought to be “punished” in some way, when they suffer, we experience schadenfreude (or “epicaricacy”, blah).
So, now we know it’s a natural reaction that comes simply from being born a Homo sapien (you poor brute). Still, this does not answer the original question - should the near-death status of the hate-monger Fred Phelps bring joy to our hearts? Just because it’s natural, is it right?
The answer is a (perhaps disappointingly) simple one: no. No matter how much one may despise or even hate a person - no matter how evil you may perceive someone to be, and no matter how much their actions might reinforce those feelings - it is never acceptable to rejoice in the loss of life. Never.
It’s unacceptable, you see, because the “evil” Fred Phelps is not, in actuality, evil. None of us are. We all come out of the same metaphorical gates at the beginning of the race. Physical, mental, and socioeconomic factors may slow progression, sure, but hurdles can be overcome, and all in all, we each begin our lives with a pretty even shot at attaining some kind of happiness.
But for many people, all that’s needed is one thing to turn their lives upside down. One bad day is all it takes to send a man down the path of destruction. Whether it’s the father who lost his wife in childbirth, and devolved into a drug addict...
or the stand-up comedian who fell over a railing into a vat of chemicals...
or the Austrian art student who could not come to terms with Germany’s loss in World War I...
or the Kansan civil rights lawyer who became overwhelmed with the perceived downfall of the world around him...
All it takes is one bad day. Tomorrow could be yours.
Editor's Note: As of this posting, Fred Phelps has died. He passed away early Thursday morning.