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updated 3/14/2011 2:14:10 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:14:10

In an apparent case of being drawn into a fight it didn’t want, the hacktivist group Anonymous has, after some goading and third-party meddling, on Wednesday knocked offline several websites affiliated with the Westboro Baptist Church.

Not familiar with the church? Sure you are – it’s the group that pickets military funerals with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11.” And its main website is just as blunt: www.GodHatesFags.com.

It seems that the church itself tried to lure Anonymous into attacking it last week, bait that Anonymous refused to take. But the intervention of a rival hacker may have spurred Anonymous into acting.

As of Wednesday morning (Feb. 24), GodHatesFags.com was down. So were its sister sites, among them WestboroBaptistChurch.com and the charmingly named GodHatesAmerica.com, GodHatesTheWorld.com, PriestsRapeBoys.com, JewsKilledJesus.com and AmericaIsDoomed.com.

It’s likely that the church’s Web-hosting servers had been swamped by a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, in tried-and-true Anonymous fashion.  The various Anonymous-related Twitter feeds spent much of Wednesday trumpeting this latest achievement.

Most of the sites were completely unreachable, but on one page, downloads.westborobaptistchurch.com, there was a letter bearing the Anonymous logo, addressed to the church itself.

“If you're reading this,” it said, “it means that Anonymous has lost its patience with you, likely because you've threatened us again after we denied you a war.”

In a bit of real-time amusement, that page was hacked Wednesday morning as church spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper was arguing with an Anonymous spokesman on the syndicated David Pakman radio show. (Skip ahead to about 8 minutes and 15 seconds into the clip.)

Yet it appears Anonymous wasn’t the first to take down GodHatesFags.com. That trophy goes to The Jester — or, as he prefers to spell it, th3j35t3r — a famously self-publicizing hacktivist who’s actually an adversary of Anonymous.

Crashing the party

Whereas Anonymous is a strong supporter of WikiLeaks and is currently being investigated for attacking MasterCard and Amazon on its behalf, The Jester in November claimed to have singlehandedly knocked WikiLeaks offline for “endangering the lives of our troops.”

On Monday (Feb. 21), The Jester tweeted that he’d taken down GodHatesFags.com on his own dime. But it wasn’t a fight he started.

Based in Topeka, Kan., and consisting mainly of the extended family of Pastor Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church goes out of its way to offend nearly everyone. Gays, American soldiers, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Episcopalians, Muslims and Hindus have all been declared worthy of divine wrath.

Most recently, church members planned to picket the funeral of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old killed in the Jan. 8 Tucson massacre that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, but Arizona quickly passed a law preventing them from doing so.

Last week, the church took on a new enemy: Anonymous itself. It’s not clear who fired the first shot.

Denial-of-responsibility attack

On Feb. 16, an open letter to the church was posted on AnonNews, one of several unofficial Anonymous websites. (Anyone can post a letter on the site.)

It accused the Westboro Baptist Church of staging “flagrant and absurd displays of inimitable bigotry and intolerant fanaticism” and gave a warning: “Cease & desist your protest campaign in the year 2011, return to your homes in Kansas, & close your public Web sites.”

Two days later, on Feb. 18, the church itself responded with an amusing press release — “BRING IT!” — laid out in a font-crazy PDF document that looked as if it had been laid out using a 20-year-old Macintosh.

It also called Anonymous “a puddle of pimple-faced nerds” who were “very stupid for little boys claiming to be so smart.”

The following day, AnonNews posted a second letter — one that claimed the first letter was a hoax planted by the Westboro Baptist Church itself.

“So we’ve been hearing a lot about some letter that we supposedly sent you this morning. Problem is, we’re a bit groggy and don’t remember sending it,” it read in part.

“While Anonymous thanks you for your interest, and would certainly like to take a break and have some fun with you guys, we have more pressing matters to deal with at the moment. … Next time, don’t call us. We’ll call you.”

It added as a reason for not attacking the church: “When Anonymous says we support free speech, we mean it.”

And so that’s how things stood for the next couple of days, until The Jester got involved.

Perhaps not wishing to be left eating The Jester’s dust, Anonymous seemed to have reversed its earlier decision not to attack the Westboro Baptist Church and jumped into the fray.

If so, the idealistic if misguided free-speech activists have ignored an old lesson of politics: Never get into a mud fight with a pig, because you’ll only get dirty and the pig will enjoy it.

 

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