Two massacres

The anniversary of 9/11 reminded of another religious killing on the same date

Jaime O’Neill is a teacher, freelance writer and former Sacramento resident

Last Saturday marked the anniversary of two American atrocities, one of which happened nine years ago in New York City, and the other of which happened 153 years ago in southern Utah. Both involved religious zealots killing “infidels” or “gentiles” with the merciless fervor religion sometimes generates, acts fueled by a sense of righteousness in which God or Allah is enlisted as a co-conspirator and an accessory to mass murder.

Like most Americans, I still remember where I was when those planes flew into the World Trade Center. Back then, I was living in Sacramento and commuting to the classes I was teaching nearly two hours from home. One of those classes included a sweet young guy from Saudi Arabia, a young man who’d made no secret of the fact that he was a Muslim. I was very tempted to take that day off work, mostly because of the uncertainty surrounding things. Rumors were flying even as President George W. Bush sat in a classroom in Florida for a full seven minutes after being told that the nation was under attack. And then he disappeared for several hours, leaving us all to wonder just what the hell was going on. So, faced with the possibility that there were, perhaps, more shocks on the way, I didn’t want to drive an hour and a half from home and find myself separated from my wife if there was more bad stuff coming.

But I was also worried about that Saudi kid in my class, worried about some hostility that might be directed his way in reaction to what had just happened. And, it seemed, my place as a teacher was to be there, and to perhaps make some teacherlike noises about not jumping to conclusions.

So I went to work that day, though I was completely freaked out, like just about every other person in the country. It turned out that I needn’t have worried about my students turning nasty toward the lone Arab in that first class. They were in shock themselves, and there was never an unkind or intemperate word toward him from any of them. That was September 11, 2001.

On September 11, 1857, there was another big kill-off on American soil, a couple thousand miles to the west of ground zero, out in southern Utah. On that day, in a place called Mountain Meadows, a group of Mormons, aided by an indeterminate number of Paiute American Indians, slaughtered a wagon train of settlers who were headed west, a group known to history as the Fancher Party. The number of people killed isn’t certain, but 140 is a generally accepted estimate, a figure that included lots of women and children who had their throats cut or their skulls crushed even as they begged that their lives be spared. These barbarities were made morally palatable to the murderers because those they killed were “gentiles,” and those acts of violence were thus done in defense of the faith.

Of that massacre, Mormon leader Brigham Young said: “I have made that matter a subject of prayer. I went right to God with it, and asked him to take the horrid vision from my sight, if it was a righteous thing my people have done in killing those people at Mountain Meadows. God answered me … he had overruled it all for good, and the action was a righteous one, and well intended.”

It was not news then, and it’s not news now, that religion can be bent to evil ends, can be perverted to justify acts that are beyond justification. The tendency of our species to sort ourselves into groups and to set some of our brethren apart as “other” is an enduring fact of our lot. We are quick to enlist God, Yahweh or Allah to our cause by claiming that we are merely assisting his.

Can there be a more blasphemous act than that? The monsters who flew those planes into office buildings crowded with their fellow human beings could hardly have done such a thing had they not convinced themselves of Allah’s blessing on their cruel and merciless plan. And the Mormons who killed so wantonly on that same day more than a century earlier surely needed celestial benediction to permit and excuse what they did.

In the annals of human history, the number of people savagely murdered in the name of one God or another defies counting. No God worth worshipping wants us spilling one another’s blood, and people who say God wills them to kill infidels, pagans, gentiles or apostates are the most ungodly people of all.