What am I cheering for when Anonymous takes on Westboro Baptist Church?

What do I want more, to see Westboro humiliated and receiving their (richly deserved) comeuppance? Or to see them repenting of their hatred and becoming a true church that displays the love and grace of Christ?
Anonymous
Members of Anonymous (Vincent DiamanteCC BY-SA 2.0)

Westboro Baptist Church — the infamous “Christian” group known for their virulently anti-gay agenda and for protesting soldiers’ funerals — further cemented their status as one of America’s most hated groups when they announced that they would protest a vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to “sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment.” The reactions came swiftly: Counter-protests were called for and a White House petition to have Westboro legally recognized as a hate group was launched (and received over 200,000 signatures in four days). But some of the most direct action taken against Westboro to date has come from an unlikely source: the infamous hacker collective known as Anonymous.

In the above video, the group declared war on Westboro, saying:

[W]e have unanimously deemed your organization to be harmful to the population of The United States of America, and have therefore decided to execute an agenda of action which will progressively dismantle your institution of deceitful pretext and extreme bias, and cease when your zealotry runs dry. We recognize you as serious opponents, and do not expect our campaign to terminate in a short period of time. Attrition is our weapon, and we will waste no time, money, effort, and enjoyment, in tearing your resolve into pieces, as with exposing the incongruity of your distorted faith.

Since their announcement, Anonymous members have made several moves against Westboro. In addition to taking down Westboro’s Web site, Anonymous released the personal information (e.g., social security numbers) of group members, tweeted details about where Westboro members would be staying while in Newtown, and perpetrated various pranks against the group (such as filing a death certificate for Westboro spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper). Several other hackers have joined Westboro’s fight too, including Cosmo The God, who allegedly hacked Phelps-Roper’s Twitter account.

This isn’t the first time that Anonymous has unleashed their hacktivism on a controversial and high-profile target. In 2008, the group launched “Project Chanology”, which targeted the Church of Scientology in response to their attempts at censorship. However, this might be the most “righteous” cause that the group has undertaken so far. Indeed, it’s hard not to cheer on Anonymous and their cohorts as they take on Fred Phelps’s “church” and its disgusting behavior, and then hope for their success.

And yet, one wonders what good might really result from this. Most actions by Anonymous to date seem more juvenile than anything (e.g., changing Phelps-Roper’s desktop background to gay porn). Furthermore, Anonymous is certainly not above employing dirty or illegal tactics, as evidenced by their willingness to release sensitive personal information into the wild. And ironically, the attempts to hijack Westboro’s communication outlets (like its Web site) seem to fly in the face of the free speech ideals that Anonymous holds so dearly. These activities could very well further marginalize Westboro’s members while giving them the publicity they so richly desire, but I doubt that it’ll change their hearts and minds so that they drop their hateful rhetoric. I doubt that it’ll cause their zealotry to run dry.

There’s also the issue of the capricious nature and structure of Anonymous. This is, after all, a group whose members are just as willing to take on “no cussing clubs” and epilepsy support forums as they are white supremacists, online sex predators, and government corruption. Much of this chaotic behavior is due to the group’s decentralized nature: technically speaking, Anonymous has no official leadership or structure, meaning anyone can join and claim that their activities are Anonymous activities. There is no accountability or oversight, but rather, the collective — or disconnected subsets of the collective — simply does whatever it feels like doing.

Most people would be perfectly happy to see Westboro Baptist Church go away for good. The goals of Anonymous seem quite laudatory here. Indeed, I am not unsympathetic to their cause: Fred Phelps et al. are certainly guilty of spreading corrupting “seeds of hatred” in our culture. But should I really be cheering when dirty or illegal activities are perpetrated, with no real oversight or accountability, to bring about something that I’d very much like to see? Do the ends justify the means? (To be fair, Anonymous members are also planning more benign activities, such as forming a human shield to protect people attending the funeral of Sandy Hook principal Dawn Hochsprung from Westboro protesters.)

But perhaps the more important question in this conflict is this: What do I want more, to see Westboro humiliated and receiving their (richly deserved) comeuppance? Or to see them repenting of their hatred and becoming a true church that displays the love and grace of Christ? Perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but the former seems to me driven more by power and vindictiveness — and I doubt that hacking Web sites and revealing private information will bring about the latter. My suspicion is that actions like those currently being employed by Anonymous and its allies will only strengthen Westboro’s resolve, and we’ll see even more hateful, insensitive protests in the foreseeable future.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .