Vassar, West Point share common adversary in WBC

While February 28 will stand as a significant day in the lives of many Vassar students because of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) protest and Vassar’s responsive programming, the same date will also prove to be a significant but more somber one for the neighboring West Point Military Academy. Hours before the WBC’s promised picket outside our gates, members of the church will gather at West Point to protest the funeral of General Norman Schwarzkopf, an alumnus who died at the age of 78. Just as these last few weeks have prompted students to reflect on the significance of tolerance and activism in the face of hate, I think we should also use our shared status as targets to consider our connections with West Point and all servicemen and servicewomen.

Picketing funerals, especially military ones, is one of the most notorious tactics the WBC uses to spread its message. Much like its reason for protesting against Vassar, the group’s website cites the military’s tolerance for homosexuality as its reason for picketing Gen. Schwarzkopf’s funeral. According to its website, “The truth is that all these soldiers are fighting for the right of fags to marry—the same sin for which the Lord destroyed the world with a great flood…Military funerals have become pagan orgies of idolatrous blasphemy…”

Although criticisms of our two institutions have similar sources, the words and aims differ in some significant ways. Based on previous events, the church will look to disrupt Vassar’s daily activities and attack our communities’ values. However, at funeral protests the church specifically rejoices in death and advocates for more bloodshed. The WBC’s anti-military protests include holding up signs that say ‘Thank God for Dead Soldiers’ and ‘Thank God for IEDs’; protestors have also sung and yelled in the past in order to disrupt services or to be heard by mourners as they enter or leave.

The WBC seeks to shame those attending the funeral and dishonor the dead.

I know that not everyone at Vassar supports what the military and institutions like West Point stand for. There are probably many at West Point who do not share all of our convictions. However, I still believe that the hateful rhetoric of the WBC highlights our common goals. While Vassar students may disagree with the military as an institution or its policies on sexual identity and women’s issues, we should support the West Point community and those individuals who are also suffering at the hands of the WBC’s hatred. WBC’s message of hate and intolerance is universally unacceptable.

This support becomes even more critical because West Point cadets are banned from responding to the protest. The Academy’s regulations prohibit cadets from counter-protesting the funeral picket in any way, and this leaves the community without the feelings of institutional and campus-wide support that Do Something VC and other groups seek to provide our campus. There is a tragic irony in this scenario because these cadets, now unable to protests this hate speech, may be called to fight to defend the right to free speech that allows the WBC to vocalize their hateful message.

In response to the unacceptable messages of the WBC and the cadets’ inability to engage with the group, Vassar students have created the West Point Solidarity Committee. In order to show Vassar’s commitment to supporting the grieving family and the cadets, the committee has created banners to be displayed on both campuses that read ‘United We Stand Against Hatred.’ Moreover, the committee has drafted a letter to cadets stating, despite differing opinions on other issues, their support of the West Point community in the face of such hate, and their hopes for more work towards common goals. This letter will be read to the cadets as they all gather in the dining hall on Thursday, as well as to West Point’s commandants. Copies of this letter can be found and signed on Do Something VC’s website, the group’s Facebook page, or the online edition of this article.

I implore students who detest the messages of the WBC to read and sign the letter of solidarity. These letters will also show our support of all those cadets who are personally harmed by the WBC’s message.

While these signatures mark a valuable and tangible way of recognizing our connections with West Point, Vassar students should remember that our ties to West Point and the American military run deep and will continue to grow in the coming months. These relationships should not be ignored, but rather embraced for their potential to inspire growth and understanding from individuals at both institutions. Throughout its history, hundreds of Vassar students have family members who have served, or are currently serving, in the military; this semester Vassar also welcomed its first active combat veteran to campus. This number will grow next semester when Vassar enrolls 11 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans through the Veterans’ Posse Program that President Hill created. Vassar also has been building an academic and educational exchange with West Point through the Vassar-West Point Initiative. Arguably Vassar’s most visible connection with West Point, the initiative brings cadets to our campus, and then allows Vassar students access to their daily life as well. The program brings students and cadets together in order to bridge the divide between the military and civilian communities; both military and civilian educators believe that bridging this divide is critical to ensuring a thriving democracy.

Vassar’s mission statement encourages us to embrace diversity of perspective and experience; although we may never agree on some issues, developing our bond with West Point represents one form of achieving this aim.

Moreover, the Academy’s connection with Vassar will help them as they look to develop their institution’s acceptance of LGBTQ cadets. In the aftermath of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ West Point is continuing to expand its LGBTQ support system. Knights Out, a group of West Point alumni and faculty that work to support LGBT-identified soldiers, and other groups are growing their presence on the campus. Collaboration between Vassar students and West Point cadets on issues of gender, sexuality, and race would strengthen both parties. While it may seem easy to identify the differences in our campuses, these links and the WBC’s attacks remind me just how much our institutions have in common.

A common phrase in our discussions about our responses to WBC is ‘it should be about us, not them.’ I support this statement and challenge students to consider the cadets, and General Schwarzkopf’s grieving family members, as part of this ‘us.’ We share a community and aspirations of a better world with these cadets, even though we might not always share the means of achieving these goals. As we face the attacks from the WBC, Vassar should insist on solidarity with the West Point cadets.

 

—Bethan Johnson ‘15 is a History and English double major. She is News Editor for The Miscellany News.

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