Once again our eyes were solemnly fixed on the television as we followed the shocking and horrific shootings in Paris last week, when homegrown French jihadists viciously targeted and assassinated staff members of the French satirical paper, Charlie Hebdo. The motivation? So-called “crimes against Islam.”
French law enforcement officials scoured Paris and the surrounding areas until the terrorists, two brothers, were eventually found and killed. Likewise, here on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans are having to relive the awful circumstances surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings as one of the surviving two brothers, Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, is in the process of standing trial for his part in the sadistic plot.
I’ve listened as many pundits have spoken in fatalistic and apocalyptic terms about the threat men such as these represent, along with the movements they represent and the ideas they espouse. Some voices even seem to imply that Western civilization itself hangs in the balance. But, is the type of terror we are witnessing really something new? Do the Tsarnaev brothers, or the Paris assassins represent a violent form of humanity that we’ve hitherto never seen?
As we put these events in historical perspective, we see that America and other Western democracies have been challenged before by the rise of angry, disaffected, socially disconnected individuals in our midst. Hate — manifested in extreme violence towards vulnerable members of society — is unfortunately nothing new.
A white young male in his early 20s, Thomas Tarrants III, and his beautiful female accomplice, Kathy Ainsworth, both from Mobile, were pivotal players in a network of terror that veteran Los Angeles Times reporter and author Jack Nelson described as one of the “most savage outbreak[s] of racial and religious terrorism in modern U.S. history.”
Nelson was referring to the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror in the 1960s against blacks, Jews, and those Americans who, in the White Knight’s eyes, were perverting everything that the United States and Western culture itself stood for. Unable to accept modernity, with its evolving views on race and inclusiveness, these disaffected members of American society set about on a mission of murderous bombings and cold-blooded assassinations with the intent to purge the country of its errant beliefs.
Sam Bowers, the firebrand leader of the White Knights, asserted during the summer of 1968, a time that saw the apex of Klan violence, “the events which will occur in Mississippi this summer may well determine the fate of Christianity for years to come!” His fanatical adherents felt no less so.
Bowers’ foot soldiers were made up of the dispossessed. Unskilled and semi-skilled high school dropouts, basically it were those who saw blacks and their movement towards equality as a threat to the economic and racial status quo. Yet, this movement was also made up of those from the professional and semi-professional class as well. Mirroring what we see today as many Islamic jihadists come from not only the ranks of the poor and the marginalized, but also from the educated and well-to-do. Fanaticism, it has been proven, is not just a poor person’s fall back.
Tarrants and Ainsworth were two of Bower’s most capable. They joined the group around the time the White Knights began to shift its focus upon targeting Jews who were seen as being Communist agents bent on fomenting social unrest to undermine America.
Tarrants grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Mobile but gravitated to extreme right-wing politics, and as a student at Murphy High School in 1963, he was a chief architect in leading student protests against integration. He dropped out in the 11th grade.
Ainsworth was a fifth-grade elementary school teacher whose death in a violent shootout with law enforcement would shock the community and those who knew her. Southern, Christian, well liked and socially amenable young, white females were considered impervious to being radicalized.
Ainsworth, like quite a few others during this time, had succumbed to a perverted form of Christianity. It was a view of the Christian faith that could adhere to an executive order Sam Bowers wrote stating, “As Christians we are disposed to kindness, generosity, affection … As militants we are disposed to use physical force against our enemies … If it is necessary to eliminate someone, it should be done with no malice, in complete silence and in the manner of a Christian act.”
Every generation it seems has to deal with some type of organized and lethal manifestation of hate and intolerance. Each generation has an assemblage of young men (and some women) whose minds end up becoming fertile ground for dangerous and destructive ideologies that are not intent on building up, but rather tearing down and destroying life, rather than enhancing it.
In the shootout that brought an end to Ainsworth’s life and the end of a massive manhunt for the elusive bombers, Thomas Tarrants miraculously survived. After an extensive hospital recovery and even longer time in prison, Tarrants soon came around to what his Christian faith was really all about. Tarrants has lived out his life not as an apostle of hate, but for many years now as a preacher of love, acceptance and faith.
As we battle against our generation’s purveyors of mass violence, murder and hate, let us do so knowing our society has been here before. Our true values have allowed us to prevail and I’m certain will do so again. Hopefully, in the process, some of the souls committed to destruction will, like Thomas Tarrants, come to see the life-espousing view that their Islamic faith truly holds.