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4/24/2008

Religion

SERIOUS BUSINESS
Anonymous takes on Scientology (and doesn't afraid of anything)

 

The telephone rings, and a voice on the other end says that Anonymous is in crisis mode. It’s March 13, two days before Anonymous’ second protest against the Church of Scientology, and things are starting to get serious. Rumors abound that Scientologists are flying in investigators from church headquarters in Clearwater to Washington, D.C. Reports have come in that people involved in Anonymous – “anons” – have been followed, and a series of videos has been posted on YouTube purporting to show anons without their masks and listing their real names.

The videos appear alongside a video released by the church, titled “Anonymous Hate Crimes,” which calls the group terrorists. In Clearwater, the church has applied for a restraining order against planned Anonymous anti-Scientology protests on the Ides of March, but the D.C. permit is secure.

Things seem to be going down pretty much the way ex-Scientologist Arnie Lerma said they would, and paranoia is running high. It’s a woman’s voice on the phone, but she won’t reveal her name; she wishes to remain Anonymous.

Welcome to Project Chanology, a battle that pits an anarchic, leaderless group of mostly young and tech-savvy activists organized through online forums and chat rooms against a religion formed in the 1950s whose adherents believe a science-fiction writer laid down the course to world salvation.

EXPECT US
“Doc” says he goes back and forth on whether he considers himself Anonymous. He’s taken part in the protests, but he also considers himself an outsider. Like others involved with Anonymous, Doc asks that his real name not be used in this article, partly because of Scientology’s reputation for dealing harshly with critics and partly because, well, if you’re going to have an organization based on the principle of anonymity, it wouldn’t do to have your real name in print. Anons interviewed for this story say that for the most part they don’t even know each other’s names. There are no leaders and no spokespeople.

“I’m probably not your typical anon,” Doc says, over Mexican food in Baltimore. Doc has long, almost white blond hair, and he wears Coke-bottle glasses. “I’m an IT professional, I’m a family man; I have four kids, a wife, a house, pets. There’s not a lot to my professional life that’s particularly interesting, so I spend a lot of time surfing the Internet, reading Digg, you know, probably like anybody else. I have a little too much time on my hands [just] to be an intellectual, read a lot of books, that sort of thing. So … when Anon put out that announcement on YouTube, I was pretty fascinated by it.”

The YouTube announcement came on Jan. 21. Visually, it was just sped-up stock footage of clouds flying past buildings, but it was the computerized voice that made it compelling. It said this:

Hello, Leaders of Scientology. We are Anonymous.

Over the years, we have been watching you. Your campaigns of misinformation; your suppression of dissent; your litigious nature, all of these things have caught our eye. With the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who have come to trust you as their leaders has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed. For the good of your followers, for the good of mankind and for our own enjoyment, we shall proceed to expel you from the Internet and systematically dismantle the Church of Scientology in its present form. We recognize you as serious opponents and do not expect our campaign to be completed in a short time. However, you will not prevail forever against the angry masses of the body politic. Your choice of methods, your hypocrisy and the general artlessness of your organization have sounded its death knell.

We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.

As of this writing, the video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. For some viewers, it was their introduction to Anonymous. Others, like Doc, knew just what it meant.

Anonymous was born on an online image board devoted mainly to pictures and discussions having to do with Japanese animation. The site, 4chan.org, created in 2003 by an administrator who goes by the name “moot,” was based on a Japanese forum whose founder believed that if users were anonymous, their arguments would be judged on their own merits. While it is possible to use Internet nicknames on 4chan, it is generally frowned upon, so posts listing the author as “Anonymous” are the norm, especially in the site’s chaotic “random” forum. Anonymous became the name for the users of the site as a whole, a sort of hive mind of popular opinion.

As of this writing, Alexa, a company that tracks website popularity for advertisers, lists 4chan.org as the 56th most popular website in the United States. The random forum, or “/b/,” is 4chan’s most popular area.

/b/ has its own language, much of it complicated and intentionally absurd. Users calling themselves, each other and pretty much everything else “fag” is one of the less offensive conventions. There are rules set down by the moderators – for /b/ it basically boils down to “no child pornography” – but even this is the subject of jokes. The real guiding principle of the board is that nothing is sacred or off-limits, and /b/ will quickly offend anyone capable of being offended. If you don’t find anything remotely amusing about posting and reposting versions of the phrase “I think Halo is a pretty cool guy. Eh kills aleins and doesnt afraid of anything,” then either /b/ isn’t the place for you or you need to “lurk moar.”

Sometimes the joke goes too far, as was the case in 2006, when a 22-year-old in Wisconsin posted plans to bomb football stadiums around the United States. The FBI took notice, and the man eventually pleaded guilty to charges of “conveying a terrorist hoax,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which quoted an FBI official saying that the “credibility of this was beyond ridiculous.” /b/ added another rule, later removed: “Don’t mess with football.”

Last year, the Bergen County, N.J., Record reported that Hal Turner, a white-supremacist talk radio host, had filed suit against 4chan and other sites after “an anonymous cadre of pranksters” – guess who – raided his show and website, knocking him offline. A “raid” is the 21st-century version of the prank phone call, but with dozens or even hundreds of pranksters kicking in, tying up the phone lines, faxing black pieces of paper to use up ink and, above all, flooding websites with requests until they crash.

A mythology built up around Anonymous, mock-serious slogans and “facts” about the mysterious group of hackers on steroids and their pursuit of “lulz” (see also “kicks”).

Anonymous is legion. Anonymous does not forgive. Anonymous does not forget. Anonymous only undertakes Serious Business. Anonymous: because none of us is as cruel as all of us. Anonymous has seen Fight Club too many times. Anonymous is not your personal army. Anonymous delivers. Anonymous’ real name is David. Anonymous hates dogs. Anonymous likes Mudkips. Anonymous is in it for the lulz.

UNCONTROLLABLE
Scientology, on the other hand, takes itself very seriously. Faced with the chaos and unfettered discussion of the Internet, the church has sought to maintain control over the uncontrollable. No infraction escapes notice. A snarky comment in Us Weekly magazine earlier this year, about a shiny suit worn by a former Mrs. Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman (“Bonus: This specially designed suit repels Scientologists”), drew a letter from lawyers for fellow celebrity Scientologist Kirstie Alley demanding that the writer be fired and that the publication “apologize and commit to a thorough examination of why you have chosen to foster animosity and bias against Scientologists.”

The incident that sparked the latest Anonymous protests was just as silly: an internal church video posted on the celeb gossip site Gawker that featured Tom Cruise discussing his religion. Cruise comes off as a wide-eyed true believer, and the incident probably would have been dismissed as quickly as his trampoline act on Oprah Winfrey’s couch if Scientology lawyers hadn’t tried to get Gawker to remove the video on the grounds that it violated copyright law and was meant to be shown by authorized churches “for religious purposes only.” Gawker refused to take it down on the grounds that the video was newsworthy and posted the church’s letter. Somehow, that was the last straw for Anonymous.

On Jan. 15, a 4chan user posted this message:

I think it’s time for /b/ to do something big.

People need to understand not to fuck with /b/, and talk about nothing for ten minutes, and expect people to give their money to an organization that makes absolutely no fucking sense.

I’m talking about “hacking” or “taking down” the official Scientology website.

It’s time to use our resources to do something we believe is right.

It’s time to do something big again, /b/.

Talk amongst one another, find a better place to plan it, and then carry out what can and must be done.

It’s time, /b/.

The response was far from unanimous: “Yeah good luck with this fail,” wrote one user.

Another: “I disagree, we can do this. We are Anon, and we are interwebs superheroes. Who if not us will take on this abomanation of faith and capitolism? What would JFK say? He would probably say something like ‘Hey Maralyn, its not gonna blow itself.’ But he would probably also want us to do this.”

The raid gained popularity, first with the announcement video, then with an “Internet Call to Arms,” also released on YouTube. At first, the Anonymous raid against the Church of Scientology followed the usual pattern. According to a statement from Scientology, its churches around the United States have received more than 6,000 “threatening and harassing calls” since Jan. 17.

This time, however, Anonymous started to gain members, as people who had nothing to do with 4chan got on board. Anonymous became the latest in-joke to escape the site and run through the Internet, taking with it 4chan in-jokes like longcat (who is long), Guy Fawkes masks (from the movie V for Vendetta but also representing a 4chan character called “Epic Fail Guy” because, well, he fails) and rickrolling (tricking someone into watching the video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” quite possibly the worst song ever recorded).

Judging from the postings to 4chan’s /b/ and other chans, a significant number of users were unhappy with the raid and the attention it brought. Some of the other chans have been calling for raids against the protesters and their supporters to sabotage the project. Their Internet hate machine has been hijacked, and they want it back.

On Jan. 27, Anonymous changed course. In its campaign against Scientology, Anonymous ran headlong into a group of longtime church critics and ex-members. Basically, Mark Bunker asked them to knock it off.

Bunker, a filmmaker and longtime critic of Scientology, runs the website XenuTV.com, a clearinghouse for information critical of the church. In a video posted to YouTube, Bunker, bearded and soft-spoken, earnestly addressed the camera in a “Message to Anonymous.” He said the group’s actions – the phone calls, faxes and website attacks – were hurting critics of the church, who have been working for years to document what they see as the abuses of the organization. He urged them to work peacefully, within the law. To the surprise of everyone concerned, Anonymous listened. The response was posted and reposted around the Internet until it became another slogan: “Wise Beard Man is Wise. His words are wise, his face is beard.”

Anonymous’ first real-life protest, on Feb. 10, drew, by the group’s own count, about 8,300 people worldwide. They wore masks to preserve their anonymity – mostly Guy Fawkes masks, but also bandannas, gas masks and, in D.C., at least one fully costumed Burger King. The videos and raid drew much media attention, from the Los Angeles Times to The Economist. Washington hosted one of the larger groups, around 200 protesters. Local forums were set up; Enturbulation.org (the name is a reference to a Scientology term for disorder) acted as a worldwide coordinating site.

WHITE KNUCKLES
At the March 15 protest, an anon in his 30s who says he works in homeland security compares Anonymous to the war on terror: You can fight terrorists, but you can’t fight an idea. Anonymous, he says, is an idea.

As he says this, he’s wearing a suit and surgical mask, standing on a street corner outside the Washington Church of Scientology in Washington, D.C., while someone reads L. Ron Hubbard’s military record over the PA system.

Longtime Scientology critic Arnie Lerma gives a speech, as does Jeanne-Marie Boucher, who was raised in the church. Boucher, 25, blames the church for driving her father to suicide in 2001. Her father, a church staff member in Washington, hanged himself after being denied auditing, the counseling sessions necessary to rise within the church and its belief system. Boucher says her father was despondent after church officials questioned his loyalty, accusing him of having been brainwashed by outside forces. “He killed himself,” she says. “He thought that if he died, he could come back in another body, in another life, and receive more Scientology auditing and continue up the ‘Bridge to Total Freedom.’”

Boucher attended the Feb. 10 protest as well, just to check it out, and has since joined the Ex-Scientology Kids forum. In her March 15 speech, Boucher is nervous and tearful, but defiant, shouting at the church across the street, “What do you have to worry about? What are you afraid of?” At the end of her speech, she turns to the church and says, “I want to thank you very much for breaking my heart.”

Across the street, a man in a green eyeless mask says his name is “David.” The closest thing he will give to personal information is that he’s a goon, a member of the forums at the humor site SomethingAwful.com. That’s where he first saw information about the raid and decided to get involved. “The Internet has had a problem with Scientology since ARS,” David says, referencing alt.religion.scientology, a Usenet bulletin board at the center of the first scuffle between Scientology and net users back in the 1990s. “It’s sort of the nature of the beast. That’s what the Internet is, it’s free information for anyone who wants it. The two are diametrically opposed.”

When David talks about “since ARS,” one of the people he’s talking about is Lerma, a former Scientologist who runs the website Lermanet.com from his home in Arlington, Va. In 1995, Lerma posted church documents to the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. At the time, the documents were available from a court in California, but they were later sealed. Wired magazine, then only a few years old, called the ensuing lawsuits over copyright infringement “a flame war with real bullets,” as the church’s “Religious Technology Center” sued Lerma and The Washington Post (to whom he had also given the documents) in a Virginia court.

The documents, containing religious teachings of the church, included the now widely publicized story of Xenu, a galactic emperor who rounded up other aliens, sent them to Earth and killed them, causing them to inhabit the bodies of humankind. The Xenu story was the basis for a controversial episode of South Park that made fun of the church and celebrity Scientologists Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Scientologists say the story is taken out of context by critics of the religion, and that it forms the merest fraction of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder.

The suit against the Post was dismissed; the judge ruled that its use of the documents fell under the “fair use” exemption to copyright law. Lerma was fined $2,500 and ordered not to disseminate the documents again. But Lerma’s criticism of Scientology became something of a crusade for the freelance audio engineer.

Lerma has a sense of humor about it all, even if it’s tough sometimes to know when he’s joking. When he returns a reporter’s phone call, he apologizes for not doing it sooner, but he had a neo-Nazi rally to attend. He’s kidding about that part, but he takes Scientology seriously. “They do say some bad things about me,” he says.

Lerma was a Scientologist from 1967, when he was a 17-year-old hippie attracted by the scientific trappings of the religion, until 1976, when he says he was forced to leave. His battle with the church began in earnest in 1994, when the list of websites on the Internet was still short enough to be contained in a guidebook, which is where Lerma came across a newsgroup called alt.religion.scientology.

“I logged onto the newsgroup,” Lerma remembers, “and posted a message: ‘Hi, I’m Arnie Lerma. Anybody remember me?’” He got a response from someone he hadn’t seen in 25 years, who introduced him to a group of renegade Scientologists. The newsgroup consisted of about 12 people. “We were just sharing stories,” he remembers.

He began posting to the newsgroup, which became a clearinghouse for documents the church didn’t want made public. The church contacted Internet service providers to have the newsgroup removed from their servers. The more the church sought to tightly control information, the more the online activists believed that information should be disseminated.

Lerma planned to retire from his activism at the end of last year. A bad back and a constantly ringing phone were growing tiresome. He has long believed that Scientology would fall suddenly, “like the Berlin wall.” When Anonymous came on the scene, he changed his mind about retirement. This, he thought, could be it: “All of us old-timers were ecstatic. We’re just holding on with white knuckles.”

FAIR GAME
Three weeks after Mark Bunker’s plea to Anonymous, the first real-life protest was held outside Scientology churches worldwide. The date, Feb. 10, was chosen to coincide with the birthday of Lisa McPherson, a Scientologist whose 1995 death was the subject of a Florida lawsuit; her family and a foundation set up in her name said that the church was responsible for her death by denying her appropriate medical care. Criminal charges against the church were dropped in 2000, according to the St. Petersburg Times, and the lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2004.

An Anonymous protest is a surprisingly organized affair. On the morning of March 15, it began at Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., before a march to the protest site across the street from the church (to the sounds of a rickroll played through boom-box speakers). The rumored private investigators from Florida never materialized. The only evidence that anyone was inside the church was an unsmiling man on the second-floor balcony videotaping the proceedings, and a few Scientologists who occasionally left the church building
and made circles through the crowd, cameras in hand, to snap close-up pictures of protesters.

A protester wearing a burlap bag over his head to complement a suit and tie identifies himself as “Question Mark Guy” and echoes a lot of anons when he says their “ultimate goal is the dismantling of the current incarnation of the Church of Scientology and the church to get their tax-exempt status revoked. The Scientologists can keep practicing their religion in any way, shape or form they want, as long as they don’t break the law when they do it.”

Scientology organizations gained their tax exemption in 1993, in an unusual sealed settlement that was later published by The Wall Street Journal. The settlement was the result of a battle between the church and the IRS that lasted almost 30 years, and according to the Journal, the church agreed to pay $12.5 million, drop thousands of harassing lawsuits against the IRS and set up a “church tax-compliance committee.” The IRS canceled taxes it had levied on church leaders and organizations and granted tax-exempt status to all Scientology entities in the United States.

The New York Times reported at the time that private investigators had been hired by the church to dig into the lives of IRS officials, finance IRS whistle-blowers and critics and set up front groups, including a fake news organization to gather information on church critics. As part of “Operation Snow White,” as the church dubbed its campaign against the federal government, it found and destroyed government files around the world concerning Scientology. After the FBI raided Scientology church offices in 1977, 11 people went to prison for their part in Operation Snow White, including Mary Sue Hubbard, the wife of church founder L. Ron Hubbard, who was himself an unindicted co-conspirator. The church had declared its enemies “fair game,” a term used by Hubbard in a 1965 policy letter. The policy is still cited by critics, although Scientologists say it has long been discontinued.

HATE SPEECH
One of the camera-toting Scientologists at the D.C. protests, a man with curly white hair and a bemused smile, declines to comment for this article, pausing long enough to say, “The person you want to talk to is Sue Taylor, inside.”

Taylor, the president of the Washington Church of Scientology, is busy but later agrees to a meeting. She suggests a visit to the nearby L. Ron Hubbard house, the first Church of Scientology.

A tour of the L. Ron Hubbard house, on 19th Street near the Dupont Circle Metro station, begins in the front room, where a collection of effects tells the early story of the founder of Scientology.

According to the materials, he was born in Tilden, Neb., was made a “blood brother” by a nearby tribe of Blackfoot Indians before he was 6 and became the nation’s youngest Eagle Scout at the age of 13, before setting out to wander the earth. According to the book What Is Scientology?, his travels took him from Guam to China before he returned to the States to finish high school. During the next three years, according to his official biography, he studied physics at George Washington University, conducted his “first experiment concerning the structure and function of the mind,” joined the Marines, became “one of the country’s most outstanding pilots,” organized a 5,000-mile voyage aboard a four-masted schooner, and performed and wrote for the local radio station. (Almost every aspect of Hubbard’s official biography is disputed by Scientology critics.)

In 1934, he began writing fiction in earnest; pulps, mostly, with occasional breaks during the next 15 years to conduct experiments, according to What Is Scientology?, “dealing with the endocrine system. He discover[ed] that, contrary to longstanding beliefs, function monitors structure. With this revolutionary advance, he beg[a]n to apply his theories to the field of the mind and thereby improve the conditions of others.”

After studying criminals as a “Special Police Officer with the Los Angeles Police department” and hospital and mental ward patients in Savannah, Ga., Hubbard settled down to write the book Dianetics, expounding on his theories of mental health. A New York Times review at the time called Dianetics “a set of fantastic theories without proof,” but despite such criticism, it became a best seller. In 1955, Hubbard founded a church based on his beliefs in Washington, which today has branches all over the world.

Later, back in the renovated mansion that now serves as D.C. church headquarters, Taylor and Sylvia Stanard, the D.C. church’s director of external affairs, sit down for an interview. Taylor asks that the conversation not be tape-recorded. She says she is afraid of misquoting Hubbard and would prefer that information come straight from his writings and official church statements. Here is what the church has to say about Anonymous:

“There is no question that, taken as a whole, the actions over the past few weeks constitute hate crimes and hate speech. Churches of Scientology have been the targets of bomb threats through phone calls; bomb threats have been made in Internet chat rooms; 22 Churches of Scientology were targets of phony anthrax mailings; e-mails sent to Church servers contained hate messages, bomb threats, death threats, threats to burn down the Church and vague threats to destroy the Church; death threats, other threats, and communications denigrating the religion and its followers have also been received from Anonymous by fax. In one fax, Anonymous noted that it intended to ‘desecrate’ Scientology’s ‘religious artifacts’ as ‘befits them.’”

The statement comes with a video, the same one posted by the church on YouTube. It focuses on one threat in particular – posted on Feb. 13 – threatening to blow up “Churches of Scientology across the United States and land under the power of the Commonwealth government.” Anonymous members have denied any involvement with the threat and asked YouTube to take it down when it was posted. Whether or not it was an official Anonymous action, it illustrated the problems of an amorphous, leaderless group.

Stanard has been researching the group, checking out 4chan. Her verdict: “Anti-Semitic, racist, just weird.”

Both women say the D.C. church has received phone calls ranging from threatening to just weird. Stanard says she got a phone call the day before from someone who said “he had a puma waiting for me.” She isn’t sure what to make of that.

“There had to be one person who decided to get pissed off and write this manifesto,” Stanard says. But the protests are “mostly kids, blindly following.” They get their information from “two or three old-timers like Arnie Lerma,” but “the rest are just in it for the game, they’re bored.”

“Look at the first manifesto,” Stanard says. “They say they’re going to drive us off the Internet. How do you justify that based on taking one video down? Whoever is doing this is inciting hatred. They may not themselves be committing acts of terrorism, but they are inciting others.”

“Ninety-nine percent of these guys are just out for a good time,” Taylor chimes in. “But what about that one guy who actually does something?”

Taylor says the church has changed since the days of Operation Snow White. The old ways have been abandoned and she says that change in church policy is something that Lerma has never accepted. Stanard agrees: “He hasn’t been in the church for 35 years. When he’s talking about the church, it’s not the church today.”

Likewise the Xenu story, which does not rate a mention in What Is Scientology? “That’s straight out of South Park,” Taylor says. “It’s not part of our beliefs. You can only see it from people like Arnie Lerma.”

NOT STOPPING
The Anonymous convention on March 22 didn’t go quite the way it had been planned. Originally scheduled to happen in the same Washington hotel where Scientologists were celebrating the birth of L. Ron Hubbard, Anon was banned and its deposit refunded after the hotel got wind of its plans. Exiled to a cavernous building in Crystal City – a weekend ghost town of office buildings across the river in Arlington – more than 100 anons, mostly masked, showed up after a stop to protest outside the Scientology event. Name tags at the registration desk outside the conference room all read “hello, my name is david.”

A call for suggestions for the next protest drew a few shouted suggestions; the most popular was “ball pit.” A few brave anons took to the microphone to kill time, some eventually succumbing to shouts from the audience to put their shoe on their head. They repaired upstairs to the hotel restaurant for cake, then listened quietly as a Freezoner – a member of a group that practices Scientology outside the official church – spoke about his beliefs and answered questions, and a live Internet feed drew around 80 people, who posted comments that scrolled across a large screen in front of the room.

A few days after the convention, one of the anons interviewed for this story e-mailed to say he and others had received a letter and provided a copy.

It is similar to letters that have reportedly been received all over the country, delivered to the homes of outed anons, and it comes from a Los Angeles law firm retained by the Church of Scientology International. “We are sending you this letter,” it reads, “because the Church has reason to believe that you may be directing or leading some or all of the actions of ‘Anonymous,’ and have assisted in its campaign of violence or inciting violence against the Church. … Should your organization continue inciting and/or engaging in violent acts against the Church or its members, we are prepared to take any and all steps necessary to protect our client, including referring any individual, including you, to Local, State and Federal authorities.”

The recipient, a college freshman, says he isn’t changing his plans, but he has retained a lawyer “just in case.” He says he is taking the letter seriously but hasn’t committed any illegal acts.

“I’m not worried,” he says, “and I’m definitely not stopping.”

A version of this story appeared originally in Baltimore’s City Paper.

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