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Missionary astray

The Accidental Terrorist

By William Shunn 

18 Nov, 2015

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I’veread a lot of SF, but there’s a heck of a lot of it. More than Icould read in my lifetime. That’s why this is the first book byWilliam Shunn I’ve ever read, even though he has been publishingfor decades and has been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula1.But … this book is not SF; it is autobiography.

Shunnhas done a lot of interesting things. He was part of the team thatwrote the venerable word-processing program, Wordperfect, which manyof us still feel was better than the Word that replaced it as thebusiness standard. He was also something of a celebrity in Canada inthe mid-1980s. 

WilliamShunn was the earnest young Mormon missionary whose bomb threat toFlight 789 made newspaper headlines all across Canada. 

Thebook includes a short, dense history of the Church of the LatterDay Saints, a history focusing primarily on charismatic founder,Joseph Smith, although the account does include events after Smith’smurder. It’s an unflinchingly frank history and not one that I expectwould be greeted with joy by his former co-religionists. 

Thenfollows an account of Shunn’s brief career as a Mormon missionary inCanada. Canada has a rich history of distrusting religions thatoperate outside a narrow window of orthodoxy. It has given a frostyreception to Doukhobors and Mennonites; some religions have beensingled out for outright suppression. Canada has not been especiallyfertile ground for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The church isstill something of a curiosity, though it has been more than acentury since the first Mormon town in Canada was founded by CharlesOra Card. In a nation of thirty-odd million, there are still onlyabout two hundred thousand Mormons, more than 40% of whom are locatedin Alberta. 

Canadawould likely not be any Mormon’s first choice, but that was whereShunn’s church sent him.

Shunndiscovered that Canadians, being supplied with perfectly adequatereligions of their own (including the notoriously inclusive UnitedChurch, for people who want something like Unitarianism but with morepoutine), were not especially interested in conversion2. Despitethe poor odds of finding potential converts, he was still expected tospend long hours going from door to door, attempting to convertuninterested or hostile strangers. He also discovered that his fellowMormons often fell short of their own ideals, as humans do.Disillusioned, he tried to abandon his mission. He was hunted down bychurch elders and persuaded to return to work. His faith renewed, atleast for the moment, he decided that his flight had been a hugemistake. So, when a fellow missionary tried to make a similar escape,Shunn did everything in his power to stop him. Which included makinga (baseless) bomb threat to ground the fugitive’s airplane flight.


Shunnis lucky that he pulled his little stunt in Canada and not the US. Itwas also lucky that he called in his bomb threat in the 1980s, wellbefore 9/113. It may also have helped that he was a clean-cutwhite Christian. 

Afew years back I watched an interview with a fellow who had thedubious privilege of becoming a ShinryuuTokubetsukougeki-tai (God-Dragon Special Attack Squad) pilot, a bomber pilot during WorldWar Two. Pilot survival was not a priority for the God-Dragon SpecialAttack Squad. The pilot was quite frank about the psychological meansused to convince young men to accept suicide missions. He was also,all things considered, happy that the war ended before he was sent tobomb the Panama Canal.

Althoughproselytizing in Canada isn’t nearly as dangerous as flying a suicidemission, it was clear to me that the same or similar psychologicaltechniques were used to recruit and retain personnel. I suppose thatis as (un)surprising as discovering that cultures as disparate as theancient Egyptians and the Maya both built pyramids. Independentinvention, anthropologists and historians call it. 

Therewere moments when the shadowy web of influence exercised by theMormons seemed extraordinarily creepy to an outsider like me. Shunn’smission superiors were able to mobilize US Mormons who interceptedShunn; the church reacted faster than Shunn could travel. I wasreminded of Wintermute and the payphone incident in Neuromancer.

Wintermute,Case. It’s time we talk.’ It was a chip voice. Don’t you want totalk, Case?‘

Hehung up.Onhis way back to the lobby, his cigarettes forgotten, he had to walkthe length of the ranked phones.

Each rang in turn, but only once, ashe passed.

Ican’t help but feel that the way that the Mormons caught up withShunn is weird and ominous; it reminds me of the extralegal networkof the clams . Perhapsthis sort of thing falls within the normal range of ability forlarge, rich, geographically dispersed churches. To which I, someonewho does not belong to any of them, say Gosh, how interesting.”

Asidefrom being an ex-Mormon (like several other SF writers and fans),Shunn is — unsurprisingly for an SF author — pretty clearly what TVTropes calls Oneof Us a giant SF nerd whose reading list, provided in passing here andthere, will be of interest to many of my readers. His list seems tohave a lot of overlap with mine, which is probably no surprise. 

Manyautobiographers try play down or soften their youthful misadventures.Shunn faces his past head on. He centers his book on the stupendousmistake that was the bomb threat. He also provides enough contextthat readers can understand why he did what he did, and even begin to have some sympathy for thenineteen-year-old numbskull who did it. He doesn’t in the least tryto justify it as a sensible decision. 

Thisis an engaging book, both for the pocket history of the Church of theLatter Day Saints and Shunn’s account of his brief but memorable tour as amissionary. I strongly recommend it. 

TheAccidental Terrorist can be bought here

1.In an earlier post on my site, I referred to William Shunn as aformer SF writer. I’m taking this opportunity to apologize. I hadconfused him with Mike Shupp.William Shunn is still active in the SF field. 

2:South America has been more fertile ground for the Mormons. This mayexplain why a few years ago I used to get accosted by Mormonmissionaries looking for the Latin American part ofKitchener-Waterloo. As it turns out, we do have South Americans inKW (despite our remarkable hate crime record), but there is no particular neighbourhood in which theycongregate. 

WhenI had my store, I would invariably reward LDS attempts to convert meat my place of work with an attempt on my part to sell them books. Ihad a lot more success than they did.

3:Some of you may find this unbelievable. When Shunn made his phonecall, hadn’t Canada just experienced what is still the largest mass murder in Canadian history,one involving bombs on planes? Before 9/11, wasn’t this the largestterrorist attack targeting an airplane? Well, yes. However, Canadaused the power of racism against the threat of mass panic. Most ofthe victims in the Air India bombing were Indian-Canadians. Canadiansin general just didn’t get that upset about what the white majoritysaw as a brown-on-brown crime4. For much the same reason, manyWesterners are proclaiming their solidarity with the French after thebrutal Daesh attack of November 13, while ignoring the similar Daeshatrocities in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere.

4:Which may explain the complete clusterfuck that was the ensuinginvestigation. Though some would say that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whilefine people to call when you have a barn that needs burning,are not all that good at catching crooks, especially when the victims are not white. And much the same goesfor the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Incompetence morethan doubles when the RCMP works with the CSIS. They hate each othermore than they want to catch bad guys.