Monday, March 8, 2010

Protesting the Fallen

The United States Supreme Court agreed today to hear an appeal of a $5 million verdict against a number of members and clergy from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, KS.  The case stems from the church's sponsorship of demonstrations at the funerals of servicemen and -women who have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Their church teaches that God is punishing the United States for tolerating homosexuality, and that these casualties, the deaths on 9/11, and a number of other things are the result of this tolerance.  This particular case was brought after the group picketed the funeral of Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder with such signs as "Thank God for Dead Soldiers."  The family sued for for emotional distress and invasion of privacy and won.

I should say at the outset that I find the teachings of Westboro Baptist Church completely repugnant, and I in no way wish to appear to defend what they did.  Whether or not their actions were protected by the Bill of Rights, they were incredibly offensive.  I also don't want to in any way appear to say that having these people show up at your loved one's funeral is a good thing, or even a neutral thing.

What I wonder, though, is how much emotional distress this protest actually caused.  I think we can probably agree it is not zero.  People processing a traumatic loss find comfort in some things and difficulty in others, and this definitely caused difficulty.  There is no question that the funeral would have been a better, more private, more tasteful event had the protesters not been there.

At the same time, however, this family was in a tremendous amount of emotional distress to begin with.  They were angry, they were in shock, they were undoubtedly a mess.  I have no doubt that the protesters completely enraged them, and I don't blame them one bit.  The question is, how much did the protesters make their emotional states worse, versus how much did they simply provide a really obvious and convenient target for those emotions?

I am sorry Lance Cpl. Snyder died.  I am sorry that these horrible people decided to picket his funeral -- they shouldn't have.  In the end, however, Snyder would be dead whether they showed up or not.  That would be awful, whether they showed up or not.  And that part isn't their fault.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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