On Tuesday, at 8:32 a.m., less than 24 hours after two bombs exploded on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, leaving three dead and nearly 200 wounded, something awful yet predictable happened. First responders were still on the scene in Copley Square when the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) tweeted a message to shell-shocked America:
An attached flier explained that "the federal government [has classified] the bombs as a terrorist attack, but [says] it's unclear if it's of a domestic or foreign nature." The Church's explanation? That "GOD SENT THE BOMBS!" because Americans "insist on nation-dooming filthy fag marriage."
Massachusetts "invited this special wrath from God Almighty when it was the FIRST STATE to pass same-sex marriage on May 17, 2004." The Church claims that God bombed the Boston Marathon "as a direct and immediate result of that first step down the slippery slope to nationwide fag marriage." The Commonwealth's "callous, defiant sin [left] 3 dead & more dying, with 100's wounded and millions terrified in its wake." Others in the same vein followed.
There are many ways one could react to such announcements. One could lash out in anger, disgusted by the group's abject inhumanity in the face of senseless terror. A righteous fury at those working to deny homosexuals their civil rights, or a primal rage against a "church" which would protest the deaths of innocents at a peaceful sporting event.
Either reaction would be entirely human; as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in words that went viral after the bombing, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Fear cannot drive out fear, only love can do that."
One could risk such anger in a reluctant defense of the Westboro Baptists, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Snyder v. Phelps protects their First Amendment rights of expression. Many in Boston — and across America — would nonetheless sympathize with Justice Samuel Alito's passionate lone dissent that "In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims."
Or, to paraphrase HBO's The Newsroom, one could speak truth to stupid. Fact to fiction. Tolerance to bigotry. Love to hate. Boston, Massachusetts stands proud and prosperous, for nearly 400 years a global center of commerce, culture, and history. It rose against an empire and sparked a revolution unlike any the world had ever seen. And almost a decade after its first same-sex wedding, it's still here.
The world spun on after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that denial of marriage equality was impossible under the Massachusetts Constitution. The Apocalypse never came, not then and not now as New Zealand and Uruguay prepare to become the 12th and 13th countries to legalize same-sex marriage. The count will reach 14 with France. Surely God would aim higher than the Bay State? Perhaps Canada, Spain, or the home of newly-elected Pope Francis, Argentina?
Boston and its Commonwealth have not only survived, they've thrived. Massachusetts students top the nation in math and reading, its education system among America's finest. One better: Bay State readers rank fifth in the world, outperforming every state in the union, Singapore, and Japan. A holdover from Mitt Romney's tenure as governor, it boasts the lowest number of citizens without health insurance (5%) and the country's sixth-highest life expectancy. The state economy weathered the Great Recession while Boston boomed, the city's skyline dotted by new construction.
Divine retribution seems decidedly toothless. A surging nationwide majority favors legalization of same-sex marriage; Westboro has done a poor job of translating God's supposed anti-gay will into change on Earth. But Boston once talked a similar talk, years ago in its fervent defense of racial segregation. Of all cities, this one may understand best how misguided — and ultimately hopeless — Westboro's cause truly is. Equality always wins out in the end.
None of that should matter. The Church's sermon is disgraceful enough; that its members would usurp a memorial service for the victims of terror is nothing short of abhorrent. The Constitution aside, there exists a time and place for political rhetoric and religious dogma. This, by any measure, does not qualify, though of course the Church knows as much. They have always targeted such emotionally-charged events, hoping to adopt another's tragedy for maximum effect.
A terrorist's bomb shattered Boston's spirit, that much is true enough. The city may be bruised and broken, but it is by no means beaten. Boston will never cave to terror, be its weapon of choice a homemade explosive or a fanatic's picket line. It lost three of its own to a cruel act of evil, innocent lives that had done no harm. There are no words the Westboro Baptist Church might hurl that could cut deeper.
So come one, come all. The city will gather in mourning at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the beautiful home of the Boston Archdiocese. It shouldn't be hard to find, and the protesters are welcome, provided they can find an open piece of field or sidewalk on which to stand.
Boston is a notoriously crowded place, you see, small for its 625,081 residents — add the rest of the Commonwealth and you're past six million. The Westboro Baptists have their First Amendment rights to speech and religion, of that there's no doubt. But six million Bay Staters have rights of their own, the freedom to line those old streets and fill the fields from the South End to Charlestown.
This city has already suffered incredible hatred. It need not leave any room for more.
This article also appeared on Daniel Shea's blog, Outside(r)LookingIn.