National Post

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Radical believers

Experts not surprised religious zealotry can lead to shocking violence

Adrian Humphreys,  National Post  Published: Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sean Adair, Reuters File Photo

Whether it is a child's belief in Santa or a religious belief in the incredible miracle story, belief looms large at this time of year. This five-part series explores its many facets. Today, can belief go too far?

Did I believe it?" asks Michael Griffin.

"I stood holding a sign that said 'Abortion Kills Children.' It was facing the traffic. I turned it around and read it. I looked at my child next to me, then back at the sign. 'Abortion Kills Children.' Was it true? Of course it was true; that wasn't the question. The question was, why was I standing here across the street from the abortion clinic instead of doing something?"

Griffin, 46, indeed ended up "doing something," an act driven by his intense beliefs.

On March 11, 1993, dressed in a grey suit and clutching a .38-calibre snub-nosed revolver, he shot and killed Dr. David Gunn, who performed abortions inside the Pensacola, Fla., clinic where Griffin and others had been protesting. The killing, for which Griffin is serving a life sentence in a Florida state prison, was one of several shootings and killings of abortion doctors, three of them in Canada, linked to the antiabortion movement.

These violent acts by men who are generally regarded as otherwise peaceful, church-going Christians are stark examples of the extremes of the dark corners where belief can lead.

The deadly attacks by men who profess that their crimes spring from deep conviction, two of whom agreed to provide their thoughts on the nature of belief to the National Post from their prison cells, are by no means unique: Catholics and Protestants killing each other in Northern Ireland; Muslims linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and other acts of terrorism; Jews who assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and massacred Muslim worshippers in Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs; Sikhs who assassinated India's prime minister Indira Gandhi and downed Air India Flight 182; a group of Japanese Buddhists accused in the nerve gas attack in Tokyo's subway.

"Every religious tradition has this element," says Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Terror in the Mind of God. "Religious belief gives a language of absolutism through which one's highest aspirations and one's deepest fears can be projected, so it is not surprising that it would be linked to some of the most beautiful aspects of public culture, as well as some of the most ugly."

Joseph Incandela, professor of Religious Studies at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind., agrees: "I'm not aware of a group that does not engage in violence at some time in the name of their beliefs."

In a handwritten letter from Okaloosa Correctional Institution, Griffin tells of the days leading up to his deadly attack on Dr. Gunn. He says he was acting as an instrument of God.

Griffin and other anti-abortion activists had been protesting outside the unmarked abortion clinic with signs, shouts and prayers, trying to prevent Dr. Gunn from conducting abortions, a goal Griffin equates with saving the lives of children.

A few days earlier, Griffin personally issued Dr. Gunn a final warning that he says was sent directly from God.

"I met this doctor by pure coincidence behind a gas station. I believed that the lives of 12 children stood in the balance. I had a gun in my car. He was blocked in and could go nowhere. The children could be saved. Jesus whispered to me with tears in His voice: 'Tell him he has one more chance,' " Griffin writes.

"Relieved, I got out of my car, stepped to his [car] window and said, 'David Gunn, the Lord told me to tell you, you have one more chance.' La ter that day, I stood in the rain (Jesus' tears for the now-dead 12 children) waiting to speak again," he writes. He then asked Dr. Gunn if he was going to continue to "kill children" next week. The doctor answered "probably," Griffin says.

Less than a week later, Griffin dressed formally in a suit and tie again went to Pensacola Women's Medical Services. The scene of the ongoing protest was somewhat chaotic. Near the back door of the clinic, Dr. Gunn was shot several times in the back as he got out of his car, witnesses said.

Griffin's act was the first, but not the last, deadly attack on an abortion doctor. Five years after Griffin fired his pistol, James Kopp was squeezing the trigger of a Russian-made SKS military-style rifle.

A long-time anti-abortion activist who went by the code name "Atomic Dog" within the radical fringe of the movement, Kopp aimed the sniper's gun through the window of Dr. Barnett Slepian's home in Amherst, N.Y. Dr. Slepian, also an abortion doctor, died when struck by a single bullet on Oct. 23, 1998. Kopp admits to the shooting, but says he intended only to wound him to prevent him from performing abortions.

It was the last of five similar sniper attacks on abortion doctors, three of them in Canada; an arrest warrant has been issued for Kopp in one of the Canadian cases and he remains a suspect in the other attacks.

At Kopp's sentencing in 2003 in Buffalo, Judge Michael D'Amico summarized his concern with Kopp's beliefs: "What may appear righteous to you is immoral to someone else."

His actions, Kopp says in a letter this month from Hazelton U.S. Penitentiary in West Virginia, can only be understood if one has looked at pictures of aborted fetuses and read testimonials of women who regretted their abortions.

What he did, he says, is precisely what any parent would do if they saw their child in imminent danger of being killed: "Anyone who takes peace from a helpless child, dismembering her, has surrendered his right to peace, don't you think? The angels said, 'Peace, to men of good will.' "

Prof. Juergensmeyer says the letters are textbook examples of religious zealotry that moves to acts of shocking violence. "They are all excellent examples of perceiving a social or medical situation as something that is deified, as if God himself is right there. It obscures the division between the world of God and the world of man, as if we are living in a Biblical mandate with immediate divine judgment on whatever occurs," he says. "They infuse worldly struggles with divine meaning and significance."

The same is true of the Islamic extremists who commit acts of terrorism, Prof. Juergensmeyer says. "The common thread is the justification of an act because of a belief in a higher moral purpose or higher moral commandment."

While there are millions of Christians, only a handful have picked up a gun in their battle to end abortion. Similarly, of the millions of Muslims around the world only a fraction engage in terrorism. Clearly, belief in religion or belief in any particular religion is not an invitation to violence. It is about extremes, the scholars say.

"Saying abortion is bad and we should oppose it is one thing; you might vote for a political candidate on the basis of that, but you don't usually kill on the basis of that," Prof. Juergensmeyer says.

It is the very nature of belief -- the firm, unyielding conviction in the divine rightness of their cause -- that makes it so dangerous when it runs counter to the societal norms.

"This is why religious violence is so insidious and frequently vicious," Dr. Incandela says. "Ultimately, what the person is trying to exhibit is who is in control of the universe. When you are fighting at that level, there is no opportunity for compromise. It says you can compromise with evil or compromise with Satan.

"A nuanced argument in the ears of those pulling the trigger is advo cating a compromise with evil."

It is this "dark side" of belief that turns religion, considered a private and personal affair, into a matter of public and police concern, indeed a matter of national security.

The Integrated Threat Assessment Centre, a Canadian government agency that monitors threats to Canada's security, speaks of the "ultra-radical end of this ideological continuum" in a confidential report on the "problem of radicalization.

"One of the shared features seems to be that at some stage they come to be 'seekers' of greater knowledge about Islam, and through this process may become radicalized, depending on the ideological influences to which they are exposed," says the report, written this year and released under the Access to Information Act.

The young believer "desperately wants an intellectual 'frame' that satisfies a powerful need for answers in an Islamic context." The "framer" can be a charismatic person, a radical book or even a Web site, the report notes.

The "framer" does not need to preach violence, but it creates "an ideological construct that predisposes the seeker to accepting violence as a logical outcome of the current state of world affairs."

The same might be said of the Christian believers who become radicalized in the fight against abortion. For James Kopp, he writes of what the agency would call his "framer."

"I can still clearly remember the day I was sitting in the library in grad school and I played hooky from the abstracts and saw a book on a shelf, Aborted Women: Silent No More," Kopp says. "That, and the day I saw the body of an eight-month-old child poisoned to death in the Stanford Hospital morgue when I was an orderly ... That did it. I've never looked back."

He believes that others confronted with the same imagery and information would have a similar epiphany. Is it as simple as that? Maybe police and spies should take note.

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada's spy agency, is concerned with the "radicalization" of adherents to the religious faith.

"Radicalization is the process of moving from moderate beliefs to extreme beliefs," says a 2006 CSIS study called Islamic Extremists in Canada.

"While there is a certain understanding of the radicalization process, there are still many questions about how an individual changes from 'the kid next door' to a suicide bomber or an extremist staging a terrorist attack against a civilian target," the study says.

But sometimes, these men can still seem like earnest neighbours.

Kopp says: "We have not been abandoned entirely by God, but, at a minimum, he has allowed a Dark Night of the Soul to happen to us … In the Dark Night, there is a moratorium of joy."

Even so, "have a nice Christmas," he writes, drawing a little happy face.

From Griffin also: "Merry Christmas."

Some beliefs, it seems, are more inherent -- and widespread -- than others.

Tomorrow: The placebo effect and the belief in a cure.



As part of the series examining the nature of belief, and as a peek into the shadowy corners of what can be regarded as "the dark side" of belief, the National Post sent letters to several men imprisoned in the United States for killing an abortion doctor or bombing an abortion clinic, inviting them to offer on-the-record insight on what role "belief" played in their ensuing drama.

Below are excerpts from the responses. - From Michael F. Griffin, who shot and killed Dr. David Gunn outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida in 1993:

"I believed that the lives of 12 children stood in the balance. I had a gun in my car. He was blocked in and could go nowhere. The children could be saved. Jesus whispered to me with tears in His voice: 'Tell him he has one more chance,' " Griffin writes.

Near the back door of the clinic, Dr. Gunn was shot several times in the back as he got out of his car, witnesses said. Griffin dropped his gun on the ground and walked over to two policemen.

"As David Gunn was laying on the ground with his life's blood ebbing away … I walked up to Officer [Bernd] Jablonski and said: 'We need an ambulance.' "

Griffin quotes from the Bible to justify his actions: "Who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." - From James Kopp, a long-time anti-abortion activist who, in 1998, used a high-powered sniper's rifle to shoot Dr. Barnett Slepian in his home in Amherst, N.Y.:

He decries society for "using abortions for racial genocide, for pimping and abuse of young girls, for ghoulish Frankensteinish experiments, for pharmaceuticals, for money, and for what sometimes just seems like cruelty.

"All the stuff that's happening now, even mall murders in Omaha and Amish schoolgirl massacres, as evil as they are, are no worse compared to that," Kopp writes.

"How can you justify shooting someone, even just to injure them? When you justify quartering a million kids a year, get back to me."

Adrian Humphreys, National Post