There is no good time to come across a Westboro Baptist Church protest. Let's get that out of the way.
But if you're not painfully enduring their "God Hates Fags" and "You're Going to Hell" and "God Hates Dead Soldiers" signs while grieving the loss of a loved one who died fighting for the U.S. military overseas, a morning commute on Veterans Day is probably the worst hour to be reminded that such intentional provocations go on.
I was personally reminded, however, walking to work this morning from the Dupont Circle Metro to The Atlantic's offices in The Watergate, circa 8:30 a.m. About 100 counter-protesters, mostly George Washington University students, and probably 30 police had gathered in Washington Circle, a quiet park in the middle of a busy intersection near the school's campus. The counter-protesters held signs bearing rainbows, clouds, and vicious criticism of the Westboro crew.
I walked up to a couple students and asked what was going on.
"It's the Westboro Baptist church," they told me. Fantastic, I thought. My head was throbbing mildly from some Sailor Jerry I'd ingested the night before. The cop lights looked pretty bright. A Westboro protest was, well...not desirable to me at the moment.
Past a row of ten police motorcycles, blue and red lights flashed atop a cluster of police cars. About three protesters were over there, they told me...but they wouldn't be for long. They had to leave at 8:35. It was 8:32, so I waited it out, talking to these two students, who said they don't like the Westboro people because "what they stand for is completely anti-human."
Should they be allowed to do what they do--appear at military funerals and make a ruckus in opposition of the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which, to Westboro ears, seems too lenient on gays? The two GW girls weren't so sure. They said yes, but they weren't happy about it.
"It's a bit early for this, isn't it?" I asked another counter-protesting student.
"It's never too early for hate," she said.
The cop cars pulled away, and the Westboro people were off in a van to Arlington National Cemetery, where they were to be defended by more members of the Park Police.
The Westboro Baptist Church has succeeded in getting everybody's attention, as they did near GW, and as they will inevitably at Arlington today, where President Obama will deliver Veterans Day remarks honoring the soldiers who have died fighting America's wars throughout history.
There's a strong and simple argument to be made that these Westboro fellows should be ignored. In fact, Megan McArdle has made it quite convincingly. I'm probably making them feel important by writing about them today, as Megan rightly notes that the media does every time Westboro gets covered, but, then again, they probably don't read this blog anyway.
The Westboro phenomenon is basically the same as the almost-Koran-burning Florida pastor, Terry Jones. A small number of people want to do something so provocative, so offensive to so many tastes, that it riles the conscience of everyone else. It's not a numbers game.
The commotion around Washington Circle wasn't evidenced by the Westboro protesters themselves--who, significantly, I never actually saw--but the gathering of people around them. By the time 8:35 arrived, the scamps were gone. A few people had caused about 150 offended political opponents and law enforcement officers to convene, and the ensuing corroboree had more to do with the gathered attendants than anything else. The Westboro people themselves almost didn't matter. It was the imprint, that was felt. Everyone was already aware of the content at the center of the controversy. God Hates Fags. We know.
Three guys with signs, evidently, have the power to scar a military family interminably, or at least to draw a pretty big crowd. Or to cast a strange pallor over the workdays of people who commute through Washington Circle to the Foggy Bottom area.
Encountering a Westboro protest, I found out, is a bit like getting stuck outside in tornado weather, or near a presidential motorcade, or in a dream. Everything sort of stops. You're pulled into a surreal vortex of established controversy, which exists outside of time.
As the cop lights flashed in the busy circle, which brings together the main roadways of Pennsylvania Ave., K St., and New Hampshire Ave., and which Virginia commuters pass through to get downtown, the traffic was a bit jammed up. Maybe that's the real problem.