Last week (March 20, 2014), I read about the death of Fred Phelps. Phelps was the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, the “Primitive Baptist Church” of Topeka, Kansas infamous for picketing military funerals and holding “GOD HATES FAGS” signs at various protests. He was 84 years old, for what it’s worth.
The news of his death brought with it an interesting blend of opinions. Curious, I read several articles about it, as well as the always-entertaining comment sections. Many LGBT rights advocates shared the Good, let the fucker burn in hell sentiment, while others were more hesitant to speak their minds. Personally, I agree that the world is in all likelihood a better place now that Mr. Phelps is no longer with us, but I can’t bring myself to celebrate his death.
As awful as it is to protest American soldiers’ funerals, and as despicable as it is to picket the funeral of a gay college student who was beaten to death because of his sexual orientation, I find celebrating Phelps’ death — or anyone’s, for that matter — just as immoral.
The Phelps articles caused me to recall the nation’s reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. President Obama actually held a news conference to tell all of us that we had found the al-Qaeda leader who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and we had murdered him. The media coverage was chaotic — CNN didn’t know how to react, Fox News wasn’t sure how to spin the story, and ACN anchor Will McAvoy may have been high during the broadcast (only confirmed by two sources). There was even a movie made about the team of Navy SEALs and CIA operatives who found and killed bin Laden. Upon hearing the news about bin Laden, a majority of the country was in an uproar; citizens created utter pandemonium as if their favorite team had won the Super Bowl. I remember specifically that the streets of my school’s tiny campus in Glassboro, NJ quickly flooded with hundreds of students parading with flags and signs.
The question these situations force me to pose is: If we feel that the world is a better place without somebody, should we celebrate that person’s death?
Who are we to judge? How do we know what God wants? Thinking we get to determine who should live and who should die makes us no better than Fred Phelps. Or Osama bin Laden.
Were they terrible people? Absolutely. Did they deserve to die? Probably, yeah. But are we the ones who get to draw conclusions like that? And should we be throwing parties in the streets when somebody’s father is on the verge of death, or should we be making movies about an event that had little significance in retrospect?
I understand that we view these individuals as evil, and naturally, we want to rid the world of this entity. But isn’t that exactly what they thought they were doing?
Maybe we learn something from these types of people. Of course, this knowledge comes at a great expense, but sometimes it is for the better. For example, one could argue that the gay rights movement was only advanced by the public hatred expressed by Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Similarly, security in the United States would be nothing like it is today if we had not endured the terror and destruction of the 9/11 attacks. Without experiencing this physical and psychological terrorism, a majority of Americans might still be oblivious to the fact it exists.
Perhaps the only good thing about evil is the way it tends to bring the good people together to thwart it. And the way it brings the best out in these people.
“Bad” things are going to happen; it’s life. People are going to express hatred, people are going to disagree, people are going to try to make us reconsider everything we think we know. What truly matters is whether or not we allow these people to affect our beliefs. In reality, the only power these “evil” people have over us is the power we give them.
I recently read an article in The L Magazine entitled “Who Cares If a Famous Person Dies?” In the article, the author explores why we make such a big deal out of celebrity deaths — why sometimes we act as if these public figures are members of our own families. He writes:
“We’re programmed to think death matters: that when people die, we need to reach out to those who survived them and offer our sympathy, our help, our strength. So when we hear that people we think we know died, we want to do the same thing.”
Similarly, when an infamous public figure dies, we are programmed to believe their deaths matter –that perhaps the world is better without them. But, as the author suggests, celebrity deaths have no real effect on the general public. So why should the deaths of people like Phelps and bin Laden? If we’re not genuinely sad when somebody like Michael Jackson or Paul Walker dies, then how can we be genuinely joyful when somebody like Fred Phelps dies?
That’s why I say all of these “evil” people are just lemons in the end. They don’t really matter to each and every one of us. Sure, they do some bad things during their lifetimes and maybe humanity is better off without them, but it’s possible that mankind would never be able to improve itself without their existence. If something terrible needs to happen to bring a group of good people together, then so be it. And in that case, I hope we never stop learning.