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tv   HAR Dtalk  BBC News  December 10, 2019 12:30am-1:01am GMT

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police in new zealand say they believe there are no more survivors on white island after a volcanic eruption. five people are confirmed to have died and at least eight are still missing. fears of further eruptions are complicating efforts to reach the volcano. new zealand's prime minister says aerial reconnaissance of the island suggests there are unlikely to be any survivors. myanmar‘s leader aung san suu kyi is being called later this week to defend her nation against charges of genocide over its treatment of its muslim rohingya minority. and proving to be very popular on our website are two twin baby pandas. meng xiang and meng yuan, who've made their debut at berlin zoo. their names apparently mean long awaited dream and dream come true. visitors however won't be able to see them until early next year. that's all. stay with bbc world news. now on bbc news, it's hardtalk
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with stephen sackur. holding up placards outside the funerals of dead american soldiers, celebrating schoolroom massacres, westboro baptist church has been described as the most obnoxious, hate—filled group in america. megan phelps—roper was part of that group. she was born into the church. she carried those hate—filled placards from the age of five years old. but as an adult, firing off tweets against online critics, megan began to doubt. eventually, she left the church altogether, but she paid a high price. the church was founded by her grandfather. she was shunned by those she loved the most. can she still really regard the people who taught her to hate, to desire more death, that the world was going to hell, as her beloved, wonderful mum and dad?
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megan phelps—roper, welcome to hardtalk. from the age of five, in 1991, you were involved in your family's demonstrations, later taking part in pickets of the funerals of dead soldiers in the united states. can you just give us a sense of what these events meant to you? describe kind of a typical day of protest for you? we organised our entire lives around this... what westboro calls its "picketing ministry." so we saw it as the fulfilment of our duty to love thy neighbour, to go out and warn people of the consequences of their sins. their sins included homosexuality, fornication, adultery, divorce and remarriage, idolatry. basically the list of sins was endless, and the understanding that i grew up with was that everyone outside of westboro was hell—bound, and that, you know, our duty was to go
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and preach to them. we were offering them a message of life and hope. our understanding was that this was the only path for people to go to heaven, and to avoid the curses of god in this life. so as a child, kind of describe your sense of what it was like. it was exciting getting ready for these? yeah. again, i was very happy, because i thought we were doing good. i thought what we were doing was... we were the good guys. my understanding was that we were the good guys, everyone else was going to hell. and so, yeah, you're going out and you're standing on the picket line, and there's a lot of... often it was high—energy. people coming out and you were discussing these ideas that are, you know, it's what life is all about. so i was very happy. you've described in your book how you were a willing participant in the most aggressive anti—gay picketing campaign the country had ever seen. what sort of response did you elicit from people who you were attempting to persuade, to convert?
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because we talked a lot about the hatred of god, you know, people assumed that we were hateful. and they responded to us in kind, so generally there was a lot of hostility and antagonism. you know, people throwing things, sometimes driving their cars at us, yelling, screaming. so it was — when i said high—energy, i mean, it was generally very negative energy. and for us, that was proof of our righteousness, becausejesus said blessed are you when men will hate you and revile you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my name's sake. so for us, that was... gramps said that we should take it as a badge of honour that people hated us. gramps, the founder of the church, the reverend fred phelps? exactly, my grandfather. so the church is almost entirely my extended family. "they threw eggs and beer and big plastic bottles filled with urine," you write. "from behind my sign, i watched them approach us to hit, and threaten, and shove, and bellow, and spit,
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and grabforoursigns, our bodies, our hair. the police rarely seemed to help, but my parents kept us safe. yeah, and that's. .. we saw — because it was our duty to be out there, i never saw it as my parents putting us in danger. the criminals were putting us in danger. i trusted, obviously, my parents implicitly, as we all generally do when we're kids. but looking back on it, your parents weren't keeping you safe, were they? they were exposing you to verbal abuse and putting you potentially in harm's way. but for them, you know, they believe that god is with them, and requiring this of them. we would be in far more danger if they didn't have us out there, doing our duty to god. and now, do you still believe that to be the case? obviously i see that they were putting us in the path of people's hatred. but, you know, every time we would go to one of those protests, especially out of town, we contacted the police department. they were actively trying to keep us safe, and i do think that the people who are committing crimes are the ones who are actually with responsible for that. are you still now questioning
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your decision to leave? no. it was something that i thought very — it was a very considered decision when i left, and almost immediately i started having experiences that helped me see that these things that i had been taught my entire life were entirely questionable, and the things i had taken totally for granted, the idea that other people were either evil, or delusional, ill—intentioned — almost immediately started meeting incredible people who were clearly trying to live life in the best way they knew how. so i do not question, at this point, my decision to leave. i'm interested, though, you used in the course of that answer, our views, the family's views, the church's views, are questionable. that's different than saying wrong. right, yes, absolutely. i just want to be clear, because you're on a journey, in a sense. yes, understood. when i say questionable, i mean, i have come to believe that they are wrong. i believed — i knew when i left there were certain things that they did that were certainly unbiblical. at this point, i still believe that.
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i no longer see the bible as the infallible word of god, as i once did, and i don't think that westboro‘s understanding of the world and how it works — i have completely rejected that. you describe in the book the closeness of your relationship with yourfamily, and particularly your immediate family, particularly your mum, shirley. yes. and you say you became her right hand, you helped to organise, you were working very closely with her. even though you've left the church, even though you now have no contact, i think, with the family, you've dedicated the book to your parents. yeah. and people watching and listening to this interview might be surprised, to say the least, by that. well, what i say in the dedication is i left the church, but never them, and i never will. because i don't believe that my family is the problem. i believe that bad ideas, they have been persuaded by bad ideas, and that just like i was convinced,
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persuaded to change my heart and mind, that they can also be convinced, because again, i see them as good people who have been trapped by bad ideas. a wonderfulfather, a mother who you describe as somebody — there couldn't be a greater teacher than you, i am humbled to be your daughter, you write. you had a happy childhood? absolutely, i mean, obviously there were hard moments, as there are for all families. the fact that my family believed strongly in physical punishment as spoken of in the bible. but because i was convinced, i was persuaded of the goodness of those doctrines, i was — i was happy. my conscience and my actions were in line, and ifelt like i was fulfilling a divine purpose, so yeah, i was very happy. i suppose it is more about now what your parents‘ protests were, and whether it is enough to say of your parents that they are basically good people. because there comes a point, isn't there, where if good people do bad things, they're not really good people anymore. i understand what you're saying. and so this is where the epigraph
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of the book is this line from the great gatsby that says, "reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope." and that is for me a posture of grace, it is the picture of grace. it's the idea of seeing people as being on a journey, and that there is hope for them to grow and evolve and change and be better, and i believe that is possible of my family. so, if you want me to say that my family are... i will absolutely say without question and without caveat that they do evil things sometimes, and that is extremely painful, to look back at my own past and know that i was doing evil things, cruel things, unmercifulthings. there are lots of children still in the westboro baptist church, your fellow members of the extended family, never mind others who have brought their children in since they've joined up. do you think the authorities, knowing what they know now, should intervene? that is a really...
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you know, ithink, specifically in terms of, just because of the first amendment in the united states, i don't think they have any standing to intervene when it comes to the doctrines. i do think the physical punishment... so this is something, as i was writing the book, there was a part of me that wanted not to write about that. but, you know, i didn't want to. i feel this sense of wanting to protect my family, as i think we all generally do. but it felt important to write about it, for a number of reasons, and part of it is because i do want them to be afraid to hurt their children. that was something that was really emotional, writing about that, because as you say, there are a lot of children there. "on one particularly explosive morning when i was eight or nine, me and my sister got two beatings each for fighting or for insufficient progress on our piano lessons, and they were bad. they were the sort that left big, red welts, the kind that would bloom into bruises of blue, and purple, and black." you also talk about how your mother was beaten so badly by her father,
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your gramps, at one point that she was left with lifelong injuries that she still has to deal with today. that's child abuse, isn't it? yeah, absolutely. and it took me a long time, because as i grew up, i kind of accepted westboro‘s view of those beatings. you know, and again, i quote in the book all these bible passages that justify those things, specifically even the idea of beating children to the point of bruises, that's in the bible. the blueness of the wound cleanses away evil, and i absolutely do believe that's child abuse. what sort of contact have you had with your family since you left, which is what, seven years ago now? yeah, seven years ago this week. almost nothing. i reach out to them regularly, because when i first left, i despaired of ever having them back, and then i pretty quickly came to realise that, how dare i not have hope for them, considering my own journey?
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like, if could be persuaded by kind, compassionate strangers, who listened to where i was coming from, considered my perspective, and made their case and helped change my heart and mind, i felt like i owe that to my family. these people who invested so much time and energy and resources and love in me, ifeel like i owe it to them, and i also feel like i owe it to the people that they target, because if i can help them moderate their positions and change their minds, then they will be hurting far fewer people, i hope. you talk about twitter, and this is an important part of your story. it's a huge part of my story. because you went on twitter, @meganphelps. and that is something we, i suppose, social media we associate as a mechanism for polarising opinion, for encouraging people to express themselves often in very short but very graphic ways — started to open your mind. can you explain a bit about that? absolutely, so i think the very first change that communication
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on twitter brought in me came from the fact that it was so short. so having this very — you know, 140 characters, i recognised really quickly that the insults that my family throw around casually, and when i got on twitter, and first there wasn't space for it, and second, when i did insult people, i could watch the conversation just completely go off the rails immediately. and i didn't want to have these playground quarrels. i was trying to have theological debates. so first, i stopped insulting people. then, the more important parts were, twitter became an alternative source of community for me. westboro had been my only... you know, they were the only people that i trusted, that i felt close to in any way. and the fact that among this deluge of hostility, the fact that there were also these very kind people asking questions, and trying to — i was seeing parts of their humanity in a way that i never had before, and they were seeing mine,
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and it enabled this conversation that eventually led to them finding internal inconsistencies in our doctrine. the leader of the anti—defamation league, jonathan greenblatt, wrote last year, "social media companies have created, allowed and enabled extremists to move their message from the margins to the mainstream." yet your experience of social media is more hopeful, and certainly very different. it suggests that it's possible for closed minds not to necessarily just become more closed, but potentially to open. absolutely. you know, i had visited twitter in 2016 for the first time, and i was talking to the woman who, when i was first on twitter, she was showing the e—mails that she had written to the other twitter executives explaining why i hadn't been kicked off the platform. if she had done that, i wouldn't have had these experiences that let me see outside of westboro‘s ideology. you know, twitter can be a tool for radicalisation, because you have extremists there trying to recruit people. why aren't we're doing things like — why aren't we in the mainstream,
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people with better ideas, trying to recruit people? if we try to kick people of these platforms, isolate them, all that does is it lends them — it pushes them deeper into this ideology. all they have then is this echo chamber, with no way out. it's a big dilemma, though, isn't it, for the authorities for the regulators, for the companies themselves, because on the one hand we're worried about radicalisation. we've talked about it in the concept of extremist islamist activity, but actually, you were radicalised through your childhood, and you're going through arguably a process of deradicalisation, an ongoing process. you know, people talk about twitter being a cesspool, for instance. and my response to that is i do believe that social media companies, i'm sure there are things that they can do, but i also think that twitter is a cesspool because we make it a cesspool. we get to decide how we're going to engage people. we can give in to these very human impulses to respond, you know, in outrage when we see things that are outrageous,
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or we can decide there's a human being on the other side of this, and this person has — and this is what people did for me, right? they recognised that i had a lifetime of experiences that led me to that place, and that the way out was not to shame me, but to help me see outside of it, offer better ideas. we've said already that the westboro baptist church was kind of what we might call a family business. i mean, it was founded by your grandfather, the late fred phelps, who was its pastor. among the things he said over the years was, you can't believe the bible without believing that god hates people. it's pure nonsense to say that god loves the sinner but hates the sin. he hates the sin, he hates the sinner. what do you think when you read back and you hear the things he said and apparently believed ? yes, he definitely believed them. he believed the bible was the literal and infallible word of god, and that his understanding of it was unquestionable. and, you know, he was very smart. he was trained as a lawyer. you know, he won all kinds of awards for his civil rights work.
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so he was not a stupid person, and that i think led him to this toxic sense of certainty in his own righteousness. when i listen to those ideas, i understand where he's coming from. and i can quote you so many of the verses. we spent all — every single day, we were reading the bible and memorising these passages, and we would stand on the picket line and we would quote them to people who also claimed to believe the bible, and they were shocked. i don't believe the bible anymore, and it seems such a heartbreaking waste of his time and energy and talents. you don't believe the bible anymore. do you believe in god? i do not. there is so much of my upbringing, though, that i retain, these ideas that i learned from religion, ideas like grace and hope and mercy, compassion, the importance of community. there's so much of my upbringing that i retain. you say you don't believe in the bible, you don't believe in god. you quote the bible quite a lot, so it is clearly in some ways still an inspiration for you. no, it absolutely is. when i say i don't believe in the bible, what i mean is i don't
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believe in the infallibility of the bible. there are many things i find in the bible that are wonderful. it's just that i now feel free to discount and discredit the things i think are wrong. given you think that this self—styled church is wrong, given you think it is distorting religion and faith, isn't it fair to say that this is really extremism masquerading as a religion, subverting the us constitution, hijacking the us constitutional right to religious freedom in order to advance its cause? it's hard to... so, for instance, i write in the book also about the snyder v phelps case that went to the us supreme court. this is the case in which the father of a dead marine whose funeral had been picketed challenged the right of westboro to do that. yes, and while of course i believe and wish that my family would stop doing things like that, that they should not use the freedom they have been given as a cloak of maliciousness, as it says in the bible — that is what i believe they're doing there.
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but i also think that the fact that i think that the justices were right in making the decision that they made, that we have to have an open marketplace of ideas, that the importance of open, robust public debate, it has to be the priority. even if it extends to the kinds of scenes that people you used to picket had to endure? because you must have a very profoundly deep sense now of the distress that you caused. absolutely, absolutely, and it's something that i think about. you know, ithink about it frequently. it comes up in... obviously there are a lot of things that trigger those memories, and it's deeply distressing to me, the things that i did, specifically at funeral protests. and this has been part of what has been the motivation for me in doing the work that i have been doing, and trying to make amends. "when i think how callous, unmerciful, how i was to so many who had just lost a son or daughter,
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i am ashamed, and it's still really difficult to think about the harm i caused. it's overwhelming sometimes." you said those words three years ago. is it still — does it get to you? absolutely. the thing about talking about my life at westboro, to talk about that publicly, it's constantly putting me in conversation with people that i did real harm to, and it's difficult to face that. but i learned this concept shortly after i left the church, tikkun olam, from judaism, which means to repair the world — the idea it is incumbent upon human beings to see the brokenness in the world and to do what they can to repair it. so i do have to face that regularly, and it is painful, but i think it's necessary, because i am trying to find a way to repair some of the damage that i did while i was at the church. should westboro church be shut down, do you think? i don't think that the government has a place to shut that down. i hope that it's moral persuasion that i think is what we need to use with people at westboro,
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to convince them that there are better ways, to show them better ways. and it is really difficult, because obviously westboro is a very closed system. they have built all kinds of barriers, mental, cognitive barriers, to keep people in, with all good intentions. this is not a cynical use of — an attempt to abuse authority, you know, to force people to stay. they just believe. i think it's important to realise, too, the vast majority of people in the church were born into the church, grew up there. so they had these ideas, as you say, beaten into them from the time they were... they were indoctrinated. absolutely, and so the answer isn't... i think the answer is to make better arguments, and as people did with me, show them a way out. one day, when she grows up, your daughter solvi, who is how old? 13 months. so she is having fun stuff right now, but one day she may come to learn about her family, her widerfamily.
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she definitely will. and you will tell her, and you will have to tell her that you were part of what i think has been described by one advocacy group, the southern poverty law centre, as arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in america. what will you say to her? i will tell her everything, you know. obviously not maybe all at once, and not when she's tiny. but, as she grows older, she is going to have questions, and i will answer those questions. you know, all i can do is be honest, to explain what i think are the wonderful parts of my upbringing. i will show her the complexity and the nuance of the situation, but i will also be honest about what we did that was so hurtful to so many people, in the hopes that she will avoid going down a similar path. not long before he died, your grandfather, this man who had spent years kind of proselytising this message basically of hate, he was suffering i think from dementia of some kind, came out of the church one day, walked across the road and spoke to the people who had set up i think an lgbt charity opposite the church
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as a kind of confrontational thing. what do you know that happened that day? what were you told he said to them? it was a different message to the one he usually propagated. yes, so this happened about 1.5 years after i left the church, and i was speaking to my brother, who i'd just discovered had just left the church. my grandfather hadn't been giving sermons for several months, and i asked my brother, what's going on, what happened? i assume there was some kind of, you know, physicalailment or something, and he said that my grandfather had been — that he was in hospice, and that he had been voted out of the church. and i asked him why, and he said the day that he was voted out, he went out onto the front lawn, as you say, and called out to the people running the equality house, as they called it, and said, you are good people. so he had come, apparently, according to my brother and two other people who had left the church since, he came to see the church
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as cruel and unmerciful. this is the man whose website said "god hates fags," saying to "fags," to use the kind of crude insult that is used against homosexuals, saying you are good people. this is kind of an epiphany. does this give you hope foryour mum, yourdad, for other family members? it does, and i know a lot of people would say it is too little, too late, but i was shocked in the aftermath of my grandfather's death. the evening that he passed away, the church was out protesting at a concert in kansas, and people came out with a banner to cou nter— protest across the street. do you know what the banner said? i am sorry for your loss. that, for me, the fact that they didn't just turn around and feed back the same hateful, hard message that we delivered, the fact that they could show empathy and compassion to my family in that moment, is shocking, and so wonderful.
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it's one of the things that has surprised me so much since i left the church, that people are not what i was taught. and ifind so much hope in that. megan phelps—roper, thank you for speaking to me on hardtalk. thanks for having me. following hot on the heels of the storm, our next batch of wet and windy weather racing and of the atla ntic windy weather racing and of the atlantic as this cloud is moving into the west of the british isles. earlier in the night we had temperatures down as low as “11 celsius across eastern england. over more recent hours,
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as the winds have been picking up and the rain has been moving in, we can see the temperatures rise, so by dawn, nine or 10 degrees in the west, a mild start to the day for a number of places in the west. mild, but for many of us it is a wet start to the day. the exception, eastern england starting off with some early—morning brightness. the cloud and rain spreads and this rain will be heavy for all of us. the winds will be really quite gusty and squally, particularly so across parts of north wales, northern ireland, wales and parts of scotland. 60 or70mph winds, so there is risk of some disruptions. that band will push through, quite mild for a number of places, colder and will be arriving from the west. temperatures lowering through the afternoon in western scotland. transport disruption is a possibility on account of those very strong winds,the heavy rain and the windy conditions also
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bringing surface water and spray to the roads. overnight, it will turn quite a bit colder, a number of towns and cities avoiding a frost on account of the brisk winds but it will be a chilly night nevertheless, temperatures 3—5 degrees celsius. for wednesday, a much colder day is on the way. a day of sunshine and showers, a day when the showers will be most frequent and heaviest across the north—west, where there will be hail and thunder moving in, and snow over the high ground as well. temperatures, 6—9 degrees celsius. so a much colder day. that is wednesday's weather. another area of low moves in from the west, this one bringing some less cold air across england and wales in particular. a chilly start to the day in a number of places. as the rain moves in, some snow over the hills of northern england, perhaps into scotland as well, where the cold air never really reaches, so it will be a chilly day in scotland. otherwise as the cloud and rain spreads in, late in the afternoon we will see
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temperatures rising to around ten or 11 degrees for the likes of london, cardiff and plymouth. beyond that, temperatures dropping as we head into friday and the weekend, a mixture of bright spells and passing showers in the forecast. that's your weather.
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i'm rico hizon in singapore. the headlines: no sign of life on new zealand's white island, a day after a volcano unexpectedly erupted. five people have died and at leasteight are still missing. eyewitnesses describe harrowing scenes. —— at least eight. translation: it was hot, so everyone had burns. somewhere seriously burned, some others a bit less, and i'm not sure they managed to rescue everyone. we hope they did. as myanmar‘s aung san suu kyi is called to defend her country against genocide charges, we have a special report on the plight of muslim rohingya refugees in bangladesh. i'm kasia madera in london. also in the programme:


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