It's not everyday you find yourself standing next to a man holding a sign that reads "Rabbis Rape Kids."
But that's where I found myself. What's even odder, the conversation I was having with this man was not about the veracity of his sign's claim. Rather than being offended, I was more curious as to why he chose to attack a clergy member of my faith and not, say, a Catholic priest. The protester wasn't bothered by what seemed to me to be a missed opportunity. (Apparently he gets this question all the time.) He told me that his "Priests Rape Boys" sign is displayed when protesting in front of churches. "We just preach a good sin," he said, smiling.
This bizarre encounter was at a protest rally last week in Atlanta organized by the infamous Westboro Baptist Church. The Kansas-based fringe group never saw a protest they didn't want to participate in. They travel the country protesting everything from homosexuals to Jews to Christians to America itself.
They believe America, as a whole, is a sinful nation. They think America is doomed. The group has protested everything from abortion clinics to funerals -- including those of U.S. military, Tammy Faye Bakker, and Coretta Scott King. "It doesn't really make sense," a counter-protester told me at the rally. "Obviously, they're not spreading an articulate message."
Their easy-to-spot signs offer different variations on the "God hates" theme. "God Hates Fags" is probably their most famous credo (as well as their domain name), but not far behind is "God Hates the World," "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," and the just-plain-crazy, lazy "God Hates You."
Oh, and there's also this eloquent religious zinger of a sign: "Your Pastor is a Whore."
I had heard about their nationwide protests, and when I saw that they were coming to my town, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to catch the traveling freak show.
But I didn't really find a freak show. At least not with the folks from Westboro Baptist. The half-dozen hatemongers dispatched by the church were the very definition of peaceful protesters. A few adults and a couple of kids (yes, kids) made up their entire contingent. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm in no way condoning their vitriol. The heinous hate they spew is completely antithetical to mainstream values of faith. But their relatively calm demeanor as they stood at the center of this protest storm was eye-opening.
That's not to say they weren't a little, um, odd.
A woman in her 50s was using both arms to hold four posters up at once while she rattled off mini soundbites to me: "They deserve to know the truth ... Destruction has come nigh upon them ... Obama is a Muslim." While she informed me that everyone across the street is going to hell, she also talked about the biblical dictum of "love thy neighbor." I was having a hard time digesting the sincerity of that one.
After a few minutes, I walked across the street, the only one to make the trek from protesters to counter-protesters. In a way, I felt like a peace negotiator arriving at the other camp with a list of demands.
As happens often, the counter-protesters were causing more ruckus than the protesters themselves. The group of about 20 was an interesting hybrid of mostly gays and Jews -- working together against a common enemy. They were holding signs that declared "God Datez Fags," "God Loves Glitter," and the insightfully meta "Out of Context Verse." A group of "artful activists" known as the Feminist Outlawz were handing out bottled water.
A man calling himself Sir Jesse of Decatur, a public school teacher, was helping lead the counter-charge. He was tattooed, dressed in all black, and wearing a leather vest. But atop his head was a white cowboy hat -- a clear indication that he viewed himself as the heroic cowboy riding in to save the day.
The counter-protesters were shouting things from the adorable ("I love my rabbi") to the rude ("Why go to the zoo when we can see animals here for free?").
Neither the protesters nor their counterparts compared in size to the dozens of police and security forces who were protecting the protest's perimeter. In addition to those cops, it appeared that a SWAT team with automatic weapons were standing at the ready. A traveling caravan of cop cars followed the minions of Westboro Baptist around town for two days, going to half a dozen protest locales. Our tax dollars at work.
It's quite fascinating that such a hate group can get all this attention, especially considering that there were only a handful of them armed with nothing more than some posters and utter absurdity. Had a mainstream group with dozens of people planned a protest around town, my guess is that they would not be drawing this kind of attention from the public. (Not to get too meta, but would I be writing about this on the Huffington Post if it wasn't for their extremely peculiar beliefs?) All of this makes a statement about the legitimacy of extremism.
The folks from Westboro Baptist Church, despite how much we marginalize them, know all too well how to play the public and the media. With little more than the selection of some curious venues and a few press releases, these protesters have gained national attention.
In our headline-driven culture, it seems that it's not just the loudest voices that get heard, but the craziest as well. And what does that say about us as news consumers? Perhaps the real problem isn't so much that these protesters are hatemongers, but that we have an appetite for the types of controversy they sell.
I wanted to get the protesters' opinion on this, but when I turned to go back across the street, they were already leaving. With what seemed like military precision, they checked their Blackberrys, packed up their posters, and drove (with police escort) to the next stop on their traveling tour of hatred.
Follow Benyamin Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/myjesusyear