September 11th and the Politics of Comparison

By September 21, 2015

51meOlDJ63L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Most of us (of a certain age) have a very specific memory of where we were that day in 2001. I was sitting on my couch watching the Today Show as the plane hit the second tower. I set down my laptop and didn’t pick it back up that day.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me at the time that this was not the first time something horrific happened on September 11th. My abandoned laptop held evidence of another harrowing day in September almost a century and a half earlier—I had been reading newspaper articles about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Only later would I learn that 11 September was also the date of the Chilean coup in which elected President Salvador Allende was ousted (with help from the US) that led to the 15-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

On the anniversary this year, I saw a number of remembrances of Mountain Meadows alongside memories and memorials of 2001. (Not much for 1973.) Ldsliving.com had a post titled “5 Things Every Mormon Should Know.” As one who has spent a considerable chunk of my life studying Mountain Meadows, I appreciate such efforts to help Mormons collectively remember that horrific tragedy. Alongside some of the pleas to remember were references comparing the Mountain Meadows Massacre to 9/11, including one facebook post arguing that Mountain Meadows was “the largest mass murder of white people in America” until 9/11.

This post was from a friend of a friend trying to urge people to remember. Though Mountain Meadows was clearly a horror that should not have happened, unfortunately, such a hyperbolic claim of comparison is more problematic than it is illuminating. Though likely unintended, such a classification inherently values white lives over the lives of people of color. It would likewise be significant to interrogate the term “mass murder,” clearly war is not being included here. Are comparison claims only powerful if they appear exceptional?

Historians are trained to recognize the context around an event, to notice similarities, and question arguments of exceptionalism—hopefully, before they make them. Comparative history can be enlightening as we recognize sameness often more frequently than difference. Comparison is a useful tool, but it can likewise be perilous if we don’t understand its limits. If we are to undertake claims of sameness or exceptional difference, we ought to recognize comparison is also often a tool of hyperbole.

Interestingly, in the latter half of the nineteenth century a litany of Americans, both those in official positions and those writing in the popular press saw Mountain Meadows as a massacre without parallel within America. It was exceptional—an “unparalleled atrocity.” This comparison, or rather the lack thereof, was in itself a comparison rife with implications. The nineteenth-century American frontier was replete with examples of massacres; they became almost commonplace.[1] There were hundreds of smaller massacres throughout the country in the nineteenth century. Several other contemporaneous Indian massacres also left hundreds of dead in their wake.[2] Native Americans were virtually wiped out in a genocidal wave in nineteenth-century California. During the Dakota War of 1862, Indians in Minnesota killed hundreds of whites.

That most Americans at the time would not see commonality between such examples and Mountain Meadows is revealing. Perhaps white-on-native violence or native-on-white violence was expected. The U.S. army killing Indians was at times considered to be a part of the forward march of civilization across the American continent; tribes of Indians killing whites was likewise expected—perhaps as unavoidable collateral damage from the expansion of civilization.

In contrast to other native/white massacres, at Mountain Meadows white Mormons recruited Indians and then participated with them in the killing of other whites. We might think that race was the central consideration weighted to call this an “unparalleled atrocity,” however other contemporary events—Bleeding Kansas and the Civil War—offer prime examples of whites killing other whites. And those who insisted on the exceptionalism of the Meadows saw no comparison there. Those who wrote or argued in court about the Meadows had to go outside of American history to find comparable atrocities, each example highlighting a specific offense of the Mormons and Mountain Meadows was often still considered worse. There are other elements such as militia involvement that might also suggest sameness, yet there was still no perceived comparison.

In contrast to a lack of comparable American examples in the nineteenth century, Mountain Meadows has been used in the recent past to feature similarities: the possibility of religious belief to morph into extremism as Jon Krakauer argues in Under the Banner of Heaven and the Mormon capacity for violence specifically. This is the central comparison of another recent Mountain Meadows book.[3] In White Flag, America’s First 9/11, Wayne Capurro argues that there is a direct comparison between 1857 and 2001—it is not just coincidence of the date, the massacre at the Meadows was the initial instance of domestic terrorism. He writes, “It was planned and executed, not by dark-skinned Middle Easterners, but by light-skinned European Americans, mostly of English, Danish, and German decent. [sic] Though their religious beliefs contained significant correlations with the followers of Mohammed, they called themselves Christians….On the judgment day, they were to be rewarded with all the riches of the earth’s bounty, with kingdoms in the celestial world, and with the brutal destruction of their enemies–the Gentiles.” (xvi) Though Capurro does not contest the whiteness of Mormons (as would many Americans in the 19th century), Capurro resurrects a long history comparing Mormons to Muslims—of which he seems unaware. (Prophets! Books! Chosen People!) In Capurro’s analysis, there were Mormon jihadists at the Mountain Meadows that day. It is an argument of sameness; he argues it is “without hyperbole, America’s first 9/11.” (16)

11 September is surely notorious. Southern Utah, Chile, and New York City all witness the doomed date. That does not mean that they are all the same, nor do any of them represent just one thing. Whether arguing for sameness or exceptionalism, hyperbolic arguments can disguise assumptions as history. They can reduce a complicated history with complicated motivations down to one lesson. Have you seen similar examples? How do we identify hyperbole without neutralizing the horror of something like Mountain Meadows?

 

[1] I will not dispute massacre here though the term massacre itself is contested and overuse limits the weight of the term.

[2] The 1846 Sacramento River Massacre (at least 175), the 1863 Utah Bear River Massacre (250), the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre (140), the 1870 Marias River Massacre (173), the 1871 Camp Grant or Aravaipa Massacre (at least 100), and the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre (325). The Sand Creek and Wounded Knee massacres were perhaps the only massacres to receive comparable contemporary nationwide attention to Mountain Meadows.

[3] Wayne Atilio Capurro, White Flag, America’s First 9/11 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2009). This is one amongst a number to Mountain Meadows self-published books to proliferate with the rise of digital publishing.

 

Article filed under Comparative Mormon Studies Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous Race Research Tools


Comments

  1. The idea of religious extremism seems to really capture people’s imaginations. What might those crazy people do? Everything else is bland by comparison (including all the context you describe) it seems.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 21, 2015 @ 9:24 am

  2. Well there was the fear of anarchists in the late 19th century. While not 9/11 Pres. McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in September of 1901. Of course the assumption that the anarchists were organized was incorrect. (Wouldn’t an organized anarchist society be a bit of a contradiction?)

    I think when people are passionate about something to such a degree there’s no common ground for understanding people become afraid. While religion is often singled out for this there are numerous other ideologies that fit the bill as well historically.

    Comment by Clark — September 21, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

  3. From the Mormon Times 25 May 2008:
    “Co-author Ron Walker, a recently retired professor of history at Brigham Young University, said … Historically, genocide like that in the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia and South Africa has been preceded by the existence of several common characteristics, including demonizing the ‘other,’ authority, obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear and deprivation. All those conditions were present in Cedar City at the time of the murders, he said.”

    Reading this (above) and then noticing that Jews refer to Kristallnacht as 9/11 (using the European form of date abbreviation), this appeared on my monitor a few years ago after a few minutes of pondering.

    On this date

    On the morning
    Of the eleventh day
    Of the ninth month
    In 1857
    True believers murdered innocents
    In a meadow
    In southern Utah
    In the name of God

    On the morning
    Of the ninth day
    Of the eleventh month
    In 1938
    True believers murdered innocents
    In a ghetto
    In Poland
    In the name of God

    On the morning
    Of the eleventh day
    Of the ninth month
    In 2001
    True believers murdered innocents
    In towers
    In New York
    In the name of God

    On the morning
    Of the first resurrection
    Of the human race
    Innocents will stand as witnesses
    In testimony
    In His presence

    Those who did not question
    Who blindly followed
    Who did not doubt
    Will reap their reward
    In eternity
    In the name of God

    Comment by chad — September 21, 2015 @ 1:22 pm

  4. Religious extremism will always be a captivating thing and the quest to separate one’s own self or beliefs from outrageous examples is really interesting. Claiming organized anarchists plotted together is almost funny–but again a way of making those involved Other. Race, categorizations, all sort of things were used to separate Mormons to classify them as Other in the nineteenth century. And that action to separate ourselves from those Other people who do horrible things seems really constant–whether it be religion or anarchy or whatever.

    No one likes being a part of a group on Chad’s list–well, I can’t speak for Nazis or Al Qaeda, but I don’t like it. So is my desire that we use a little more historical precision rather than hyperbole with our comparisons just my reaction against that list?

    Comment by JJohnson — September 21, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

  5. The scale was different; the zeal the same.

    Comment by Chad — September 21, 2015 @ 10:42 pm

  6. Chad- You’re clearly not getting the point. If we reduce it to a single motivation then we lose the complexity of the historical event. Mountain Meadows was not a single motivation, but a perfect storm of fear, experience, bravado, lack of information, religion, and caustic personalities. It all came together; it was not caused by a single motivation.

    Comment by JJohnson — September 22, 2015 @ 12:48 am

  7. Having read some of your other posts, I think agree with you and your premise. I’m clearly out of my league going back and forth with someone who has an office in the history library, but I’ve spent some time over the last 40 years on MM. I don’t like ending up on my list either, but with all due respect, the saints themselves used all sorts of things to classify everyone not Mormon as “other” in the nineteenth century. In the end it is only by doing so – dehumanizing humans – that such atrocities are committed and, eventually defended or justified as “complex.” The perfect storm had many ingredients, some common with other atrocities, some not. But in the end, innocents used religion to justify murder.

    Comment by Chad — September 22, 2015 @ 9:06 pm

  8. Sorry, zealots (not innocents) used religion to justify murder.

    Comment by Chad — September 22, 2015 @ 9:08 pm


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