Is seeing evil knowing it?

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If I look deep down and get completely honest with myself, I will admit this much: I was disappointed when the people of the Church of the Bizarre failed to show up at the funeral for Corey Dan, a 22-year-old Army sergeant from Norway killed in Iraq.

I know it was for the best. I know the family deserved a chance to honor their cherished dead without the distraction of a truly vile entity shouting absurdities.

This is the group that has protested around the country at funerals for American soldiers with the message that God is killing them to retaliate for our tolerance of homosexuality. Among its slogans: “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” I know Norway did not need the intrusion of this group of mentally corrupt men and women with poorly defined hatred in their throats.

Still, that disappointment. Because I wanted to look such monstrous malignity in the eye and see what was staring back.

Few recent matters have so provoked normally staid people like this planned protest. Before it turned into a non-event, I heard from typically peaceful folks with elaborate ideas about how to repel the invading church group. Those ideas ranged from water balloon attacks on the protesters, the employment of fire hoses and outright violence. And who could blame them?

Even a dedicated pacifist will get riled when such a gross intrusion is under way. What is more sacred than a memorial for the dead? What could be more vile than the corruption of a service for a young fallen soldier?

The church members, without having set foot in the state, descended lower in our view than even those fiends who desecrate graves or violate corpses. In a devilish sweep, those warped cretins dishonored the dead, the living, the grieving and the average Joes and Janes.

Most of us have suffered through funerals and through the emotional tsunami that comes with losing someone so swiftly and unexpectedly. But very few of us have had to pass through a throng of twisted malcontents just to say our good-byes.

And so we hated them without ever having lain eyes on the group. We didn’t give a damn about what they were protesting because the intended means of delivering that message was so vulgar. But then we heard exactly why these zealots were causing such uproar, and we hated them even more.

And it was nearly universal. The protesters voice their rage over homosexuality and yet they have already defeated that purpose. Gays and homophobes have never been more unified. Both groups felt those haters from Kansas ought to be stopped at the state border, tarred, feathered, flogged and then rolled right back down the highway like so many bowling balls.

The ravings of those pious loudmouths has got to be about more than a simple disdain for the gay population. There has got to be more to their madness than that. It would be comforting to learn that the whole sordid show is mere posturing, that the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., is really motivated by greed. There was talk that the protesters wander the country, causing grief and rage, and then sue the cities where they are not protected.

As repugnant as that idea may be, it is still a step up from expressing scorn for homosexuals by condemning fallen soldiers as hell-bound heathens. The church group may be a bunch of money-grubbing shysters rather than morally confused zealots. Or maybe they are a form of collective hate that approaches evil.

And so I was in Norway last Saturday, hoping for a glimpse of the fiends. It was to be a study in human nature. In some way, I hoped that by staring into their eyes, I might see something glimmering down there in all the rancid muck of their views. Some sign of the malignancy that causes them so much disdain for gays, for soldiers, for anyone who does not share their views and their space in some contaminated compound.

I’m absolutely glad the Dan family did not have to encounter those insane interlopers at the site of the funeral. I’m glad the service was a peaceful one.

Yet one day, I’d still like to confront this church group, even if from afar. What drives a person to embrace such guttural views is a fascination. Would these men and women (and children?) be ogres with the vague shapes of horns upon their heads? Or outwardly normal people who happened to be filled with a blackness few of us have ever felt or will ever feel?

A study in human nature, yes. Though all things considered, I remain unconvinced that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka qualify for such a study.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter and a student of human nature.

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