Monday, July 28, 2008

Welcome to Birmingham, 1963

I have felt myself under attack before. I felt this way when George Bush was reelected president. I felt this way after 9/11. I feel this way every time James Dobson opens his mouth. But this is the first time I've felt that my faith was under attack. My mom, and a lot of conservative Christians, feel this way all the time. Now it's my turn.

Yesterday a gunman who reportedly "hated liberals" walked into a Unitarian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire during a children's pageant.

Well, if you hate liberals then the Unitarian Church is a good place to find them. I was raised Unitarian, and although I mostly attend Episcopal or Catholic services when I go to church (rarely), and although I paid my five dollars to become a Universal Life minister, I still consider myself to be Unitarian. I have very fond memories of my time in the Unitarian church. When I read about the attack in Knoxville, my mind for some reason pictured it as though it were happening in the large dome of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Sacramento, the church in which I was raised. My mom was the choir director at our church. I took part in those children's pageants. I can picture the gunman, Jim D. Adkisson, walking in through the double doors in the back, a guitar case under his arm, while I am up on stage and my mother is directing the choir, her back to the audience. I can picture him pulling a shotgun out of the case and opening fire. I can picture the large man described in the article, whose name was Greg McKendry, standing up and stepping in front of the muzzle of the shotgun to protect the other parishioners and being killed himself. And all of this is taking place, in my mind, inside the octagonal dome with its exposed beams that was the my old church, a place as familiar to me as the apartment where I grew up and my elementary school.

Of course it didn't happen there. It happened at a church in Knoxville Tennessee. But being a Unitarian, I feel this attack deep inside me. This *could* have been me. This man murdered two people, and intended to murder many more (he had 76 shells on him), because they were like me. They were Unitarians.

My sister went through something much worse. She had been a Mormon missionary in Bolivia just a year before revolutionaries went in attacked a Mormon mission in that country and slaughtered the missionaries (I never found out if it was her mission or not). That could have been here. It almost was her. I haven't been to church in years. But I feel this attack personally.

This was an attack on me, and it occurred for the same reason the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama occurred: because my church, like that one, was a place of liberal politics as well as a place of worship. I remember going to church once on Easter and, while I'm sure the resurrection was mentioned at some point in the service, all I remember was the minister talking about the Alan Bakke decision (look it up, you've got Google). Ours is a very politically active denomination. The churches that make the news these days are mostly the ones that are involved in conservative politics, and occasionally they get attacked too. But this time it was me and mine.

Yes: I do blame Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity for spreading a hatred of "Godless Liberals." It is exactly that sort of rhetoric that leads to this kind of attack. I'm not saying the rhetoric should be stifled: like gun ownership, free speech is something that can be dangerous but the alternative is worse. In a free society both are and should be sacred. But I can still lay the blame squarely at the alter of Fox Network Noise.

But was this a terrorist act like the Birmingham bombing was? At what point does a lone nutcase become a terrorist? The Birmingham attack was part of an organized terror campaign against the civil rights movement. This was a whack job who hated liberals. The Unabomber is considered a terrorist, but there was a definite logic to his postmdernist Ludite actions. McVeigh had at least one co-conspirator.

The thing all terrorist acts have in common is that terrorism is a tactic of the weak. It is a tactic used by those who can't fight a straight-up war, so they use fear as a weapon. It is an expression of rage at feeling helpless and opressed. It is an effort to scare people so much that they will stop doing what they are doing and/or leave the terrorists alone. Every terrorist from the Secari to Al Queda has seen themselves as poor and downtrodden, fighting a righteous battle against a powerful and oppressive enemy. Most attacks are against a government, but they can also be against a businesses or an institution, like an abortion clinic or an animal testing facility or a boatload of tea in Boston Harbor. The terrorist who attacks an abortion doctor or an animal researcher is striking out against an institution, as is the terrorist who attacks a church.

So was this loony tune a terrorist? Was Gian Luigi Ferri a terrorist? At what point does an angry white man with a gun become a terrorist? I suspect there has to be a political motivation. Ferri's motivation was rage over losing a law suit. His only political beef seemed to be against the FDA for allowing too much mono sodium glutamate into his diet. But this Adkisson guy, his beef was expressly political. He wanted to kill liberals. Does that make him a terrorist?

But more than that: he decided to target Unitarians, people of a specific faith. My faith. He attacked a church. Anybody attacking a church is automatically branded a terrorist, and I think that makes sense, but does this mean that killing a bunch of lawyers, because they are lawyers, is somehow less a terrorist act? After all, it's a lot harder to drum up sympathy for lawyers, even when they've been murdered. Is killing lawyers somehow ok? (if so we can probably blame Shakespeare--though almost nobody knows the context of that famous quote).

I don't think Gian Luigi Ferri was a terrorist. I think Adkisson, on the other hand, is. But that may just be because he attacked a church. Hell, he attacked MY church (though I'd consider him a terrorist if he attacked Jerry Falwell's church as well).

He attacked my church. He attacked me. And right now I feel myself a target for every right-wing nut case with a grudge and a tec-nine out there in God and Guns America.

Now I kind of know how those parishioners felt at that 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama back in 1963.


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