The man jumps out of the truck that he has used to mow down bicyclists and says “Allahu akbar,” “God is great” in Arabic. Therefore, this killer is a terrorist, which somehow makes him different from those who mow down others with close equivalents of machine guns but who do not utter in that foreign language. Often the first reaction to the mum murderers, as long as they have an “American name,” is that they are crazy.

That assumption is generally not correct. According to a recent article in the New York Times, while the incidence of a diagnosable mental illness is higher among mass murderers than in the general population, only about twenty percent of those killers had such a mental illness. Most before the killings would not have come on to the psychiatric radar.  But still, most of us believe that to kill as they have must mean, whatever a psychiatric diagnosis would have shown, that they were crazy.

The crazy label does a number of things. It allows for a certain understanding of the murderers. We may all know people who are, in our lay terms, at least a little crazy, and perhaps that we ourselves have had some crazy thoughts. The crazy designation, however, does more than just give us a certain understanding—a crazy person did it. The label also allows us to accept our passivity about these events. We are not surprised that crazy people will on occasion do crazy things, and while perhaps more should be done with the mentally ill, we will always have crazy people. By labeling the mass killer as crazy, we tacitly accept the inevitability of a certain level of mass killings.

The Arabic-spouting murderer, however, is seen differently. He, of course, could be labeled crazy, but instead he is seen as a terrorist who is an adherent of a religion that turns out terrorists. We know it is crazy to kill the churchgoers because of mother-in-law problems, but still, such stuff is going to happen from time to time. Killing in the name of religion, in the name of God, however, is incomprehensible.  We can imagine the crazy person killing, but we can’t even imagine how a true religion can lead to terroristic slaughter? Mass murder is part of our fabric, but religious terrorism is so foreign, so un-American, it must be stopped.

Of course, many have killed in the name of Christianity, but the examples are often different from those killing to glorify Allah. The Christian inquisitors, in their views, for example, killed to save souls. If the victim confessed his faith to God as the inquisitor saw God, then the victim would be saved from eternal damnation even if his temporal life ended. The religious wars in Europe and the Crusades, too, were partly about bringing souls to Christ, but also had the traditional war goal of controlling territory. Similarly, the Irish troubles and the Bosnia war had mixed religious, ethnic, and territorial and government control components.

The religious terrorism of today seems different. Mowing down people in a bicycle lane or on a Nice walkway cannot save those victims’ souls, and it is not a struggle for territory or government control. These slaughters in the name of religion makes no sense to us. We ask, “What kind of religion is it that leads to this?”

A few hours after the terror attack on the bike path in New York City, I happened to finish to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven, the book upon which the classic movie is based, so the issue of religion and violence were fresh in my mind. In both the book and the movie, bandits, who claim to be federal officers, confront three miners who have worked hard to collect a bit of gold. (And the famous line is in both: “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”) In the book, however, we learn more about the bandits preceding this confrontation.

A sizeable group of bandits had boarded a train. Without warning, the bandits bring out hidden guns, kill all the soldiers on board, and then start killing passengers. Traven writes, “Women were on their knees, some praying to the Holy Virgin. . . . Those with children held them up against the bandits, begging for mercy in the name of all the saints and offering, by the eternal grace of Our Lady of Guadalupe, their own lives in exchange for those of their babies.”

The bandits ignore these appeals and instead shout out the equivalent of the Muslim’s “Allahu akbar” as they killed and robbed. “With their war-cry: ‘Viva maestro rey Cristo! Long live our King Jesus!’ the bandits had started the slaughter. With the same cry, the signal was given to begin plundering.” They moved to the next car and “triumphantly the murderers shouted their ‘Viva maestro rey Cristo!’”

This seems to make no sense. How can these bandits slaughter innocent people in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace? Traven explains: “The bandits in this case made it quite clear that they were fighting for their king, Jesus. Fighting on behalf of the Roman Catholic church, for religious liberty.” The bandits, however, had little idea of who Christ was. “The Roman Catholic church during its four hundred years of rule in Latin America, of which three hundred and fifty were an absolute rule, has been more interested in purely material gains for the treasuries and coffers in Rome than in educating its subjects in the true Christian spirit.”

The author describes the tortures the bandits used and says they were trained in this by their religion. “Their churches are filled with paintings and statues representing every possible torture white men, Christians, inquisitors, and bishops could think of. These are the proper paintings and statues for churches in a country in which the most powerful church on earth wanted to demonstrate how deep in subjection all human beings can be kept for centuries if there exists no other aim than the enlargement of the splendor and the riches of the rulers.”

Church followers, according to Traven, don’t question the origin of the church’s wealth. The bandits were not blameworthy but “doing and thinking only what they had been taught. Instead of being shown the beauty of this religion, they had been shown only the cruelest and the bloodiest and the most repulsive parts of it. These abhorrent parts of the religion were presented as the most important, so as to make it feared and respected not through faith or love, but through sheer terror and the most abominable superstitions.”

As I read this, I wondered if Traven was giving me a better understanding of today’s religious terrorists.

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