A sadly necessary piece of legislation was signed Aug. 6, when President Barack Obama made the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 the law. Among other provisions, it added new restrictions for protesting military funerals. This came in response to a Jan. 26, 2008, protest at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., by the Fred Phelps-led Westboro Baptist Church. By 8-1, the Supreme Court affirmed on March 2, 2011, the Topeka, Kan.-based tabernacle’s right to protest military funerals. WBC first made a name for itself in 1998 when they picketed the funeral of murdered gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. When I was an Indiana University student, WBC set up shop in Bloomington for a time, and I remember God disliking homosexuals being their main and only point.
WBC’s argument that America was being punished by allowing “immoral” acts was far from unheard of in mainstream conservative circles.
“I really believe that the Pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen,’” said Jerry Falwell, on “The 700 Club” on Sept. 13, 2001, two days after, well, you know.
As soon as those words left Falwell’s lips, host Pat Robertson rushed to agree.
“I totally concur, and the problem is we’ve adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government,” he said.
But then, WBC made a fateful decision: they also began picketing military funerals.
“About 15 members of the group — some of them children — picketed the funeral of a St. Joseph, Mo., soldier who was killed in Iraq,” KMBC’s Micheal Mahoney reported on Aug. 5, 2005. WBC publicly added soldiers to the list of those harkening our destruction, a new wrinkle. It was a bold move, to be sure, one I would have never seen coming.
And then, the plot thickened.
“Hours before [Obama] led the nation’s Memorial Day observances at the Tomb of the Unknowns, three members of [WBC] were challenged by others who disagreed with them — including members claiming to be from the Ku Klux Klan,” CNN’s Laurie Urr wrote on May 31, 2011.
I don’t know about you, but I’d consider myself pretty fantastic at hating if the KKK started protesting me for being too extreme.
“It’s the soldier that fought and died and gave them that right to free speech,” Urr quoted Dennis LaBonte, the self-described “Imperial Wizard” of a 10-strong group claiming to be a branch of the KKK from Virginia called the Knights of the Southern Cross as saying.
Irony of all ironies, Phelps is a disbarred former civil rights attorney who detests racism, claiming no Biblical basis for it. Confused yet?
I detest both the WBC and KKK, but I bring all this up to point out a marketing lesson: stay in your lane. Stick with what works. WBC’s current strategy is like a reheated frozen pizza on a restaurant buffet. While technically edible, I’ll bet most patrons didn’t come for that. WBC doesn’t seem to grasp their fatal over-step: they went after the troops. And if there’s one thing you don’t do, it’s take shots at the troops. The military funeral protests are the frozen pizza on their buffet. And not even the Klan, connoisseurs of hatred, are going to touch that.
I certainly don’t want either of them to win or to join forces and become stronger, but I figure everyone has something to teach you, even if they don’t realize it. And even if it’s Fred Phelps.
• Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.