Jac VerSteeg: When God tells you it’s OK to kill

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There has been a lot of talk about mass shootings and the Second Amendment. Let’s talk a little bit about mass shootings and the First Amendment.

We are looking for ways to keep guns out of the hands of violently mentally ill people. Perhaps we also should be looking for ways to keep religion out of the minds of violently mentally ill people.

The First Amendment is a sweeping guarantee of rights for individuals, churches and the press:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There are limits to the free exercise of religion. Courts have intervened, for example, when parents have refused to seek medical treatment for children because they believe God should do the healing.

The free exercise of religion obviously does not include the right to kill in God’s name. Yet there are people who believe God has granted them permission to carry out a holy war. Some think they’ve been called by God to kill abortion doctors – and bystanders. Some think they’ve been called by God to kill infidels – and bystanders.

That kind of thinking is crazy. But we have seen examples of each in just the past few days with the attacks on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colo., by Robert Lewis Dear, and in San Bernardino, Calif., by Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook.

For political reasons, the left and right tend to categorize the incidents differently. To the left, the Planned Parenthood shootings are domestic terrorism, egged on by right-wing politicians, and show the need for gun control. The right denies responsibility and chalks it up to the actions of a lone wolf nut (while still preaching that abortion is murder).

To the right, the San Bernardino shootings are the work of radicalized pawns of international Islamic extremists. And the attack shows the need not for gun control but for more surveillance and stricter immigration screening. To the left, the fact these murders also look like workplace rage provides another example of the need for gun control.

The uniting element is that, in each case, twisted religious beliefs seem to be prime culprits.

I am not a psychiatrist or psychologist. So I have no credentials to say who is or isn’t clinically mentally ill. But it is impossible to argue that the actions of Robert Lewis Dear, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were the work of mentally stable people. What was it about their mental makeup that made them think God gave them permission to kill? Farook and Malik left behind a baby daughter, for crying out loud. What kind of people do that?

If it is going to be hard to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people, it is going to be even harder to keep twisted religious ideas out of the minds of people susceptible to those violent notions. But – whether you think terrorists should be considered mentally ill or not – we need to insist that it is just as important to keep guns out of the hands of violent religious extremists as it is to keep guns out of the hands of the violently mentally ill.

That means the NRA, and its political enablers, should support better, universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Those are not anti-gun measures, those are anti-terror measures. By all means tell us how you’re going to fight ISIS abroad. But also tell us how you’re going to disarm ISIS followers – and there are going to be more of them – at home.

And one more thing. Every preacher preaching to his or her congregation and every politician preaching to his or her constituents should explicitly make one thing clear: If you think God is telling you it’s OK to kill, that’s plain crazy.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is a columnist for The South Florida Sun Sentinel, former deputy editorial page editor for The Palm Beach Post and former editor of Context Florida. 

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