Zealots Hit the States

* Religious fundamentalism isn't just for Muslims anymore.

What problem do Israel, Algeria and the United States have in common? The answer--religious fundamentalists--should not surprise you.

If the fervently religious movement to stop abortion were developing anywhere across the Middle East, American news crews would have no trouble labeling Operation Rescue and its more radical bedfellows as "fundamentalists."

They have rejected the laws of this country in favor of their own religious beliefs; they are therefore on a par with some of the most despicable terrorists in history.

Just as the Hezbollah and Hamas have arisen to rain terror in Israel, so have splinter groups of the anti-abortion movement formed to perpetrate violence in our own country. With pamphlets entitled "The Army of God" circulating among these people, their rhetoric is only a translation of what Islamic Jihad, another violent fundamentalist group, might publish.

Sure, America's own fundamentalists don't look exotic or speak a different language, but think of native Lebanese who see their friends and neighbors joining the cause.


American fundamentalists are no less convinced of their own righteousness than any other religious zealots. Observe the blank looks, even smiles, of John Salvi and Paul Hill as they are arraigned and tried in court. These men feel no repentance at all for the killing of people in no way guilty of breaking this country's laws.

If anything, Salvi and Hill face the prospect of martyrdom as the bold heroes of their comrades in arms.

Just as huge funerals bearing (not solely) the bodies of adulated terrorists paraded through the streets of the West Bank during the Intefada, hundreds of Americans now stand outside jails and court-rooms exalting and praying for Salvi and Hill.

It's true that the vanguard of the anti-abortion movement doesn't consist entirely of violent vigilantes. Then again, most Islamic fundamentalists across the Middle East don't believe in violence--just the assimilation of their views into the political fabric of their nations.

That assimilation is exactly what anti-abortion activists are trying to accomplish.

Unlike Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, no foreign government is actively supporting the violent anti-abortion groups. In contrast to other nations' cases, this fundamentalism was not the response of a persecuted minority.

Nevertheless, these facts should not abate our fears of the fundamentalist movement. These predominantly middle-class Americans do have enough money on their own to buy guns, bombs and whatever other destructive means might suit their purpose.

The problem here is that no foreign nation will bail out the U.S. if religious fundamentalists hog-tie the government; the solution must be entirely internal.

We need to take a strong and unforgiving stance against these radicals, even if they are our neighbors. Their decision to take the law into their own hands should be termed a revolutionary act and punished accordingly.

Unfortunately, fundamentalism can't be quelled in one powerful stroke. Fundamentalism had been simmering along the Bible belt for years; it slowly came into vogue all over the nation after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

If fundamentalism dies out, it will die out slowly. The federal government--especially with a Congress more susceptible to the fundamentalists' pleas than ever before--must maintain a position of absolute austerity until this fundamentalism ebbs away.

Daniel Altman's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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