7 years after the atrocity of 9/11, Americans may know more details about what happened that tragic early autumn day, but we still have trouble fathoming how religious extremists could commit such a calculated, monstrous attack on thousands of innocent, unsuspecting people.
Terrorism isn’t anything new and excessive religiosity isn’t a modern ailment – even in America. More than a hundred fifty years ago, on another September 11th, an act of religious terrorism left more than a hundred American men, women and children dead. And the perpetrators? Fellow Americans.
A closer look at this relatively obscure attack may shed some light on how religious terrorists are created and serve as a warning, that terrorists don’t always speak another language, have a different color skin, or live across the ocean.
The Mountain Meadow Massacre occurred on September 11th, 1857. It was carried out by a group of Mormons who attacked a wagon train of pioneers traveling from Arkansas through Utah on their way to California. Who ordered the massacre and why has been shrouded in secrecy for over a hundred years, but it’s now believed the atrocity was committed in the name of God. Whether or not Mormon leader Brigham Young ordered the massacre is a moot point. What is important was the atmosphere and politics in Utah at the time, the history of persecution suffered by the LDS church, and the hysteria whipped up in sermons by the hierarchy of the LDS church led by Brigham Young. Why his sermons were so inflammatory has been the subject of much speculation. The fact is, sermons such as the “Blood Atonement” sermon remains a troubling part of history. The absolute, unquestioning obedience of the men of Southern Utah who believed they were acting righteously is shocking at the very least.
I wrote September Dawn to share the story of how religion can become distorted and followers can commit heinous acts with the belief that they’re following God. The book and subsequent movie aren’t really about a particular group. The story is an American tragedy about blind obedience and loyalty to doctrine created by flawed human beings.
What can we learn from the terrible incident? Several things. First, we need to acknowledge that terrorism isn’t a foreign commodity -- it can happen anywhere. Religious terrorists are created through consistent indoctrination, a forceful, charismatic leader and an insistence on absolute obedience to the hierarchy of any religion. They’re cultivated in an atmosphere that’s unforgiving and teaches zero tolerance for “others.” In a terrorist culture, especially in times of social, political or economic turbulence, there’s an unwillingness to accept responsibility for the condition of one’s life. Problems are always someone else’s fault.
The biggest lesson to be learned is that we shouldn’t accept anyone’s doctrine without examining our own hearts. Many of the young Mormons forced to participate in the massacre wept and vomited as they killed innocent men, women, and children. The more enlightened threw down their guns, and at least one young man was shot by his own father for trying to save a little girl by hiding her. Monsters did not commit the massacre. Farmers, family men, blacksmiths, grocers, normal, everyday Americans were responsible for this horrific crime.
Religious terrorism happens when people don’t question their religious leaders. Blind followers are taught they’re being righteous and will be rewarded for their acts. Everyone has a right -- and a duty -- to examine their leaders and their doctrine. Terrorist seeds are planted in an atmosphere that forbids questioning. They take root in the minds of followers and eventually deaden the heart to humanity.