Homegrown terrorism and the armies of anthrax



The word itself is chilling, harsh, consonantal. Its two sharp syllables connote fear, violence and infection. It is a disease so scary that a 1980s heavy metal band named itself after it, hoping to lend an air of mystery and foreboding.

I wonder how the members of that band feel now, seeing that a name they chose for their edgy ring has now become the name of some of our darkest collective fears. I wonder if they feel guilty about treating such an awesome threat so trivially. Perhaps. But then again, they could never have foreseen the disease’s treacherous future, when it would turn from a theoretical threat to a real one.

Unfortunately, the past week has shown that there are scores — maybe hundreds — of people willing to exploit the anthrax scare for personal gain or amusement knowingly. There has been no conclusive link as yet between any of the real or fake incidents and Osama bin Laden. Whether bin Laden is involved here or not, individuals or groups that perpetrate anthrax incidents implicitly assist bin Laden’s cause by inciting further tension in a climate already bristling with fear. I am surprised, in most cases, that Americans — even malicious or crazy ones — want to do that.

Except in one case.

One group that has claimed responsibility for a portion of the hoaxes calls itself the Army of God. Based in my home state of Virginia, the group is one of several in this country that advocates violence against doctors who perform abortions. They believe they are doing the work of good — of their god — by killing innocent people. To justify their heinous crimes, they cite a religious text whose lessons include “love thy neighbor as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In many ways, they are extra-national, undertaking actions they see as motivated by a “higher power.”

Sound familiar?

Dangerous elements like the Army of God should remind us that religious extremism is hardly confined to other continents. In fact, organizations such as the Army of God operate by the same principles used by fanatics like Osama bin Laden and the Taliban government. They thrive on intolerance for other faiths and philosophies, convoluted readings of their own religion and a desire to impose a church-run state whose vision of “morality” becomes the law of the land. Afghanistan, in many ways, is a country run by its own Army of God.

Even before September 11, I was always very, very thankful for the separation of church and state that we enjoy in this country. Even with that right, perversions of religious doctrines have seeped into our political system, usually to some people’s detriment. Such “moral” lawmaking has been used — and continues to be used — in this country to advance slavery, homophobia and sexism. Like those things, bin Laden’s actions are fundamentally irrational and unjustifiable.

Thus, it is a mistake to assume — as some have — that bin Laden represents a legitimate reaction to U.S. foreign policy. His irrational act should not be the subject of hand-wringing debate over why he hates us so much or how we could have stopped him. Irrational hate cannot be quelled by rational responses or behavior. That is especially true when the act that flows from that hate — like killing innocent people — is also irrational.

Americans should always think about the future of Palestine, foreign aid, our international role and the failures of past foreign policy. But they should not consider Osama bin Laden — a mere religious fanatic — a representative of oppressed peoples or their grievances.

September 11 is no more justified or explained by U.S. foreign policy than killing doctors is explained by Roe v. Wade. Even to try and assess the “reasoning” of bin Laden and his network of thugs — who would like nothing better than to impose an Afghanistan-like church-state on the rest of their region and the world — is tantamount to giving legitimacy and credence to violence against the innocent.

Religious fanaticism, in any form and of any faith, is perhaps the single most dangerous threat to stability and happiness in the 21st century. If we want a safer world, we need to stop the “armies” of all the different gods — even in our own back yard.

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