THE BLOG
09/17/2014 10:02 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

ISIS and the Ku Klux Klan

Bruce Roberts via Getty Images

As decent people from all backgrounds struggle to fathom the latest savage murder by ISIS, one of the more mind-boggling facts is the perpetrators' bizarre attempts to cloak their brutality as somehow an act of spiritual conviction.

And while Americans are bewildered by the sheer cruelty of these sociopaths from a far-off culture, we might consider a long, violent chapter of our own history: the reign of terror by the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership at one point numbered over four million during the 20th century, and which also claimed religious justification for its atrocities.

The Klan emerged in the U.S. south shortly after the Civil War and was led by Confederate Army veterans, who hated the war's outcome. They deeply resented the Reconstruction era, when former slaves were now deemed to be citizens, and even accorded a Constitutional right to vote.

Klansmen dressed up in robes and sheets, enacting creepy rituals as part of a secret society, with functionaries bearing such titles as Imperial Wizard and Grand Cyclops.

Like the gruesome, knife-wielding captors pictured in the ISIS beheading videos, Klan members were hooded and cold-blooded. One method of Klan murder was to hang victims by the neck, usually tying the rope to a tree. They also perpetrated vicious whippings, shootings, tar-and-featherings, rapes, bombings and torching of homes occupied by innocent families (sometimes where children lay sleeping).

On occasion, killings by the Klan were staged as public events, analogous to today's internet-disseminated videos by ISIS. From that era, historians have compiled a shocking archive of photographs that depict carnival-like public lynchings of African Americans. Pictured are crowds, sometimes in the hundreds, who gathered to watch the murders, as if attending some sick sport.

One such scene was enacted in the controversial early Hollywood epic film, Birth of a Nation (whose original title was The Clansman).

The Klan movement fluctuated in intensity, largely fading after its first wave, in part because terrorized blacks learned that they dare not vote or assert other basic rights. But the KKK has since reincarnated several times and remains in existence to this day.

Ginned up by patriotic fervor during World War I, a group adopting the Klan name emerged again, partly reacting to a trend Klansmen abhorred: the integration of Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and the labor union movement into American society.

After a period of relative quiet, the KKK surfaced once more during the civil rights movement. Finally in 2000, the FBI concluded that the notorious September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was committed by four men who were part of a Klan splinter group. Four girls attending Sunday school, ages 11 to 14, were murdered.

Yet somehow a gang that blew-up children attending church has maintained twisted religious rhetoric, including the loopy insistence that "Jesus was the first Klansman." One of its signature acts was the burning of crosses, supposedly to symbolize white, Protestant supremacy.

As recently as March 2014, a leader of the Traditional American Knights of the KKK told a reporter for the NBC-TV affiliate in Richmond, Virginia, "We are a Christian organization." On a Twitter feed, he also claimed the Klan is "about love for God, race and nation."

So today, as we wrestle with how to understand the ISIS gang -- who sanctimoniously cite a religious basis for their barbaric acts -- it is worth remembering the lunatic claims of religious legitimacy made by America's own home-grown terror network.

Both groups manufacture self-serving beliefs to excuse their hatred and murderous impulses and actions. They conveniently ignore the compassionate essence of the beautiful, peace-loving founders of Christianity and Islam, who urged believers to turn the other cheek and to see the lives of others as one's own.

The dangerous delusion of the religio-terrorists is that by maintaining a pretense of piety and by merely invoking the name of God, they are somehow entitled to behave in a manner that is opposite to God's unconditional love and that flies in the face of all that is truly sacred.