Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a beautiful and cloudless day in the Eastern United States. The beauty of the day ended at 8:46 a.m., as American flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing all on board. At 9:03, United flight 175 struck the South Tower. The doomed flights, along with American flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon at 9:37, and United flight 93, which went down in an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, were the first instance of major terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Thousands were killed as the World Trade Center towers collapsed and the Pentagon burned.
Friday, September 11, 1857 was a brisk day in the mountains of Southern Utah; nights at 4,000 feet were chilly, but the days were bright and warm. But the afternoon of that day ran cold as a band of armed Mormon settlers and hundreds of Indians surrounded, betrayed and slew a wagon train of about a hundred people at Mountain Meadows. The events mark one of the most gruesome examples of religious zealotry in American history.
The four planes on 9/11/01 were hijacked by Mohammad Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, Ziad Jarrah and fifteen others from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen, young assassins financed and trained by al-Queda. The terrorists likely viewed themselves as martyrs for their cause, a brand of radical Islamic fundamentalism that seeks to drive Americans from Muslim nations and to wreak vengeance for wrongs incurred by America against Muslims worldwide. Al-Queda’s perspective, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, is that “America has attacked Islam; America is responsible for all conflicts involving Muslims…America is also held responsible for the governments of Muslim countries…Bin Ladin has stated flatly, “Our fight against these governments is not separate from our fight against you.” A product of desperate Middle Eastern poverty and a longing for the golden days of the Ottoman Empire, Bin Laden, Egyptian writer Sayyid Qutb and others set forth their Wahabism, a belief system without a middle ground, where America is the Satanic invader of holy lands, and where martyrdom is a necessary step: “the walls of oppression and humiliation cannot be demolished except in a rain of bullets,” as bin Laden said in an interview. Hatred of the Other unites the devotees of this puritanical form of Islam. As author Thomas Friedman noted on Sept. 14, 2001
(http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/14/opinion/14FRIE.html?ex=1126497600&en=466501aa2bf3ecb8&ei=5070), “The terrorists who hit the U.S. this week are people who pray to the God of Hate… Their terrorism is driven by pure hatred and nihilism, and its targets are the institutions that undergird America’s way of life, from our markets to our military.”
It is easy to view the attackers as monsters without thought or decency. Monsters they were, but some insight into the personalities of the hijackers may be informative. Mohammad Atta, by all accounts and according to the 9/11 Commission Report, was “very intelligent and reasonably pleasant…Atta stood out as a decisionmaker. Atta’s friends during this period remember him as charismatic, intelligent, and persuasive, albeit intolerant of dissent.” Ramzi Binalshibh, coordinator of the attacks, “was known within the community as being sociable, extroverted, polite, and adventuresome.” Marwan al Shehhi “was very religious, praying five times a day. Friends remember him as convivial and “a regular guy,” the son of a muezzin and student of mathematics. Regarding Ziah Jarrah, the 9/11 Commission found that “Even with the benefit of hindsight, Jarrah hardly seems a likely candidate for becoming an Islamic extremist…he arrived with a reputation for knowing where to find the best discos and beaches in Beirut, and… was known to enjoy student parties and drinking beer.” Soon after coming into contact with each other, all of their personalities changed, becoming militant, serious and singularly devoted. When someone asked al Shehhi why he and Atta never laughed, he replied, “How can you laugh when people are dying in Palestine?” Jarrah began talking about his desire to not leave the world “in a natural way.” By the late 1990s, Binalshibh was decrying a Jewish world conspiracy and proclaiming that the highest honor was to die during jihad.
By early 1999, al-Queda was already a powerful enemy of the United States; on October 12, 2000, al-Queda operatives attacked the USS Cole with a small boat filled with explosives. Other al-Queda cells had for a motto, “The season is coming, and bodies will pile up in sacks.” Gathering momentum, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, at the direction of bin Laden, had little that stood in their way.
They believed that by their small means great destruction could be accomplished, and they were right. With few complications, the cells boarded their assigned flights that morning and accomplished precisely what they set forth to do. Only the heroism and self-sacrifice of those on United flight 93 prevented even greater disaster.
Driven from Nauvoo in 1846, the Saints began heading West; in July 1847, an expedition led by Brigham Young proclaimed the Great Salt Lake valley to be the place; a territorial government was established in 1850. The Saints began to build their Zion in the hills, and spread South down to Dixie, following old trails and streams. It was their last stand, a land where none would molest them or make afraid, where their prophets would no longer be martyred.
Then, on July 24, 1857, the news arrived: the United States was sending an army to put down the Mormon Rebellion. The reaction among the Saints was immediate. Two days later, Heber C. Kimball exclaimed from the pulpit: “Send 2,500 troops here, our brethren, to make a desolation of this people! God Almighty helping me, I will fight until there is not a drop of blood in my veins.” Two weeks later, Franklin D. Richards issued orders that “We now appeal to the God of our Fathers & Prophets for protection against the hostilities of any Mob that shall invade our Territory, and invoke the aid of the Heavens to strengthen us in defending ourselves against further aggressions…report without delay any person in your District that disposes of a Kernel of grain to any Gentile merchant or temporary sojourner…” John Taylor, speaking in the tabernacle, asked “Would you, if necessary, brethren, put the torch to your buildings and lay them in ashes, and wander homeless into the mountains, rather than submit to military rule and oppression?” (the vote was unanimous in the affirmative). George A. Smith, speaking in Parowan, reminded the settlers that a few bones planted at the roots of a tree would fertilize the plant, and added, “As for the cursed mobocrats, I can think of nothing better that they could do than to feed a fruit tree in Zion.”
A siege mentality quickly sank in. The Saints in Southern Utah prepared to burn their farms and homes and retreat to the mountains, an early plan for guerrilla warfare against the United States, and every Gentile crossing the Territory was regarded with suspicion and treated as an unwelcome foreigner. Likewise, the Indians, with whom the Mormons had established a very fragile and tentative peace, regarded all non-Mormons as “Mericats” (Americans) not to be trusted. Brigham Young instructed several Indian chiefs that “they must learn that they have either got to help us or the United States will
kill us both.”
In this volatile environment a group of emigrants wound their way through Utah in August and September 1857. Composed of Americans from Missouri, Arkansas and elsewhere, the band went from town to town on their way to California, only to find hostile treatment at every turn. The emigrants themselves were far from being peacemakers; by some accounts, the Missourians were self-proclaimed “Wildcats” who bragged of being part of the mob that killed Joseph Smith; one of them even taunted the Saints by showing a pistol, claiming that it was the gun that shot “old Joe Smith,” adding, “I would like to go back and take a pop at Old Brig before I leave the territory.”
Soon, the rumor spread that the Company had poisoned a spring, killing cattle, a Mormon, and several Indian braves. The Gentiles were denied trade and provisions, and were forced to go around towns now walled up like fortresses. Some of the Gentiles helped themselves, and boasted of what would happen when the Army arrived to set the Mormons straight. Isaac C. Haight, bishop of Cedar City, recorded his sentiments about the Gentiles on September 6. 1857: “They drove us out to starve…We resolved that if they would leave us alone we would never trouble them. But the Gentiles will not leave
us alone…So far as I am concerned I have been driven from my home for the last time…God being my helper I will give the last ounce of strength and if need be my last drop of blood in defense of Zion.” It was decided to “do away” with the Missourians. The Indians, regarded as the “battleax of the Lord,” were incited against the traveling Company by the rumors of poisoned herds.
As the group rested at Mountain Meadows on Monday or Tuesday (Sept. 7/8), the Indians began to attack and were repulsed. When some of the group broke away to get help, they were hunted down and slain. A military contingent of Saints was soon brought in to contain the situation, a group including Major John M. Higbee, under orders that the emigrants old enough to talk must be “put out of the way.” It was decided that John D. Lee, who had the best relationship with the local band of Piede Indians and who could help pacify them, would approach the Company under flag of truce, induce the emigrants to leave their camp, then, upon signal, the Indians and the Mormons would do away with them; the Mormons would kill the men, and leave the women and children to the Indians, to avoid the shedding of innocent blood by Mormon hands. At the command “Halt! Do your duty!” the Mormon men fired on the men of the Company (those Mormons who would not participate fired their guns in the air), and the Indians descended from the brush on the sides of the road. The surviving children were raised by the Saints for many years.
On April 6, 1858, President Buchanan of the United States issued a “free and full pardon” against the Saints, and the army was temporarily withdrawn to Camp Floyd. Tensions declined across Utah, and attention turned to the events at Mountain Meadows. Visiting authorities from Great Salt Lake chastised local leaders in private, but no one was publicly named for being involved except John D. Lee. It is not known why he was singled out. In 1864 Lee resigned as Presiding Elder of the branch at Fort Harmony, and in 1870 Lee and Isaac C. Haight were excommunicated. Haight was reinstated as a member less than four years later, but Lee’s petitions to Brigham Young went unanswered, except for an anonymous letter that read, in part: “Our advice is to make yourself scarce, and keep out of the way.” It soon became clear that Lee could not be acquitted without involving others within the Church throughout Southern Utah.
John D. Lee, who was tried, convicted and executed for his role in the massacre, is a subject worth study. While his participation in the slaughter of the emigrants makes him a monster, he was nevertheless by most accounts a sensitive and loyal man. Juanita Brooks writes of Lee that he “was a gifted and intelligent man, generous and kindly, but egotistical and apt to be dictatorial…He was a man who was either ardently loved or heartily disliked.” Before his excommunication, he was a popular public figure, entertaining Church leaders (including President Brigham Young) at his home. Lee had a special relationship with the Mormon Moses; under the Law of Adoption, Lee was sealed as a son to Brigham Young. Following his rejection by the Church, he became a lonely and tortured individual. Lee did not pretend to be innocent, but he also refused to name names and betray his brethren. In his own account, Lee insists that he at first refused to follow the militia orders: “I…bowed myself in prayer before God, and asked Him to overrule the decision of that Council. I shed many bitter tears, and my tortured soul was wrung nearly from my body by the great suffering. I will here say, calling upon Heaven, angels and the spirits of just men to witness what I say, that if I could then have had a thousand worlds to command, I would have given them freely to save that company from death.” The Indians from this point through the end of his life called Lee “Yauguts,” or “crybaby,” for the tears he shed on that occasion. But the Indians would not be pacified against the emigrants, and demanded they be destroyed, and the orders Lee received likewise demanded their extinction.
Lee’s devotion to the faith, even following his excommunication and (in his view) being made a scapegoat for the massacre, is admirable. With his dying words he professed his belief in Joseph Smith and the gospel of Jesus Christ, and despite feeling betrayed by Brigham Young, Lee’s letters show complete devotion. He said, while sitting on his coffin awaiting the firing squad, “I am a true believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young…but I believe in the gospel that was taught in its purity by Joseph Smith, in former days…I declare that I did nothing designedly wrong in this unfortunate affair. I did everything in my power to save that people, but I am the one that must suffer.” Lee’s membership and endowments were reinstated posthumously in 1961.
The Church website publishes the following editorials by Prof. Ronald Walker and Prof. Richard Bushman concerning the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in reference to a 2003 book and New York Times editorial on the subject by Sally Denton (http://www.lds.org/newsroom/mistakes/0,15331,3885-1-16767,00.html):
“…Denton links the tragedy to present-day events by alleging that the offending local militia aimed at “ridding the world of infidels” and claims that the massacre has parallels with “9/11.” These emotionally charged comparisons, however, have little to do with historical evidence or to the actual circumstances which occurred.
Finally, the actions of the modern Church seem anything but a struggle to suppress its history, as Denton alleges. My co-authors, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard, and I have received full Church cooperation for what must be the most extensive research ever conducted on this episode. That research will be published in 2004 by Oxford University Press, and will shed more light and understanding on the event than any other previous publication.
Ronald W. Walker,
Professor of History
Brigham Young University
3 June 2003″
“To the editor of The New York Times:
In “A Utah Massacre and Mormon Memory” (Op-Ed, May 24), Sally Denton tells only half the story of the tragedy at Mountain Meadows in 1857. She does not mention that for a quarter of a century, Mormons had repeatedly been driven from their settlements by mobs that burned their homes and killed their children.
In 1857, the United States Army was on its way to Utah, and Mormons foresaw another expulsion. Some of them panicked and performed a terrible act that has stained Mormon history ever since.
Emeritus Professor of History,
25 May 2003″
As Prof. Walker mentioned, he is currently working on “Tragedy at Mountain Meadows,” with co-authors Glen M. Leonard, Director of the LDS Museum in Salt Lake City, and Richard E. Turley, Jr., Managing Director of the LDS Family and Church History Department. The book is being issued by Oxford University Press sometime in 2006, and promises the greatest access to archives on the topic ever published.
1. Does the Mountain Meadows Massacre have parallels with 9/11? If so, is there anything to be learned by such comparisons? For example, is there any way to see, in the current status of the Mormons in America, a potential pathway for Islam?
2. The actions by the Saints during the Mountain Meadows Massacre can be explained away as the hotheaded mob mentality. Can the actions of al-Queda terrorists be similarly examined?
3. Today, when I think about the thousands of my fellow New Yorkers who died that day in 2001, I wonder if I can ever understand or forgive the terrorists. I believe that Christ demands such of us. Can the Mormon participation in the Mountain Meadows Massacre help me to come to terms with the tragedy of 9/11/01?