Terrorism in American History

NOTE: I was recently revisiting some older pieces in search of a few clips for a pitch, and I came across this, a 2010 review of Michael Fellman’s In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History. Between receiving the assignment for the 1,000 word review and the deadline, a new editor came on at The Boston Globe. In the shuffle, this piece sat in their inventory until it wasn’t quite as timely as it needed to be. Rather than kill the piece, they chose to run it during the week (instead of Sunday) and cut it by 450 words or so. The edit is fine, but as I was re-reading my draft over the weekend, I decided to post the review in its entirety.

The 21st Century has been good to terror — it has reinvigorated its politics and re-imagined its aesthetics. And, as has been the case throughout American history, this collision of the politics and aesthetics of fear has produced a horrific fascination. Since 9/11, the terror industry has slyly managed to wed political and personal anxiety into a ubiquitous, engaging siege mentality. Films and TV shows like 24, and policy directives prompting travelers to adjust their uncertainty based on a color wheel, feed our conviction that vigilance requires the crimson-tinted lenses of the potential terror victim.

Academia bought stock in the terrorism industry, too. In response to the chaos and uncertainty of the past eight years, books have surged from presses. At its best, scholarship renders the world a little less incomprehensible by making critical distinctions about a culture and lending precise, if sometimes competing, definitions of political and cultural phenomena. But in a culture convinced of its own peril, nuance is often orphaned. The argument that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter incites consternation, if not outrage; what precisely constitutes terrorism and why people practice it holds little appeal to most people. We intuitively understand terrorism. Terrorism is violence directed at us.

Neither an academic clarification of terms, nor an appeal to mass hysteria, Michael Fellman’s In the Name of God and Country: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History enters obliquely into this discourse. Rather than directly examining such contemporary attacks as 9/11, or the political or cultural responses to them, the book explores five episodes from the second half of the nineteenth century: John Brown’s raid and trial, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Haymarket, and the Philippines War. Fellman, a muscular writer, reads these incidents in support of his provocative thesis that terrorism, as practiced by Americans and the American government, has been essential to the nation’s political formation. Fellman argues that these episodes provide a “counternarrative of American national development…a history of domination rather than the progressive unfolding of democracy and freedom.”

Although he sets his counternarrative in opposition to this teleological straw-man, Fellman does powerfully reveal America the macabre and vicious, where in order to enjoy the civilized pleasures of government for the people and by the people, you better hope you’re perceived as being of the people. Historically this has meant wealthy Caucasian Protestants who support the status quo.

Given the economy of In the Name of God and Country – including notes, the book weighs in at around 250 pages – Fellman’s vivid chapters are masterworks of historical narrative and compression. John Brown’s violent abolitionist assault provides the purest example of Fellman’s thesis. Brown, a man divinely inspired, acted on his frustration and disgust with the timidity fellow abolitionists and Federal appeasement of slave owners. After promptly crushing Brown’s reckless insurgency, the government conducted a laughable trial, condemned him, and promptly executed him.

Brown’s story demonstrates the essential elements of Fellman’s argument. First, throughout American history a fierce Protestantism has bolstered “a moral absolutism that served to justify political violence.” Second, Brown’s actions and the state’s response exemplify what Fellman terms the dialectic of revolutionary and reactionary terrorism that characterizes American history. Brown’s “revolutionary” actions placed him outside of the consensus of the national community, and the state responded with “reactionary” terrorism – judicial murder.

Fellman does not define “reactionary” terrorism solely as the abuse of formalized state power. Though Haymarket features the state’s lethal administrative and legal response to an outburst of revolutionary terrorism, Fellman’s other episodes do not rely on formal mechanisms of state justice. In its treatment of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Philippines War, In the Name of God and Country bursts with vivid, horrifying tales of domestic and imperial atrocities, where soldiers and citizens respond to economic uncertainty, racial panic, and martial peril with war crimes like mutilation, rape-as-weapon, and the slaughter of civilians and children.

This is horrible, but it is not the type of history that hides itself. As Fellman’s previous work and the notes of this volume attest, few of the facts contained in this book are disputed. The book’s questionable novelty lies in Fellman’s packaging of abusive state power, imperial indulgence of poor military discipline, class and racial antagonism, and lone wolf violence under the blanket of “terrorism.” Fellman frames his episodic history with short essays that invoke our fraught, fragile 21st century world. As such, he makes a sweeping argument for the expansion of the default definition of terrorism, a variation on the vernacular definition supplied above: terrorism is violence America commits.

As sympathetic to this position as I am, it is fundamentally ahistorical. A word like terrorism is a keyword, a concept whose meaning is as much cultural and contextual as it is etymological. Coined during the Reign of Terror, terrorism’s meaning has evolved over the centuries. By framing his discourse with 9/11 and using a concept with a pejorative, Bush-era valence, the book creates the impression of someone reveling in their exposure of American hypocrisy. Moreover, by selecting episodes that occurred prior to the twentieth century, Fellman conveniently omits a century of terrorism that comes from the Left – Sacco and Vanzetti, the Weathermen, etc. – that seem a better fit for the contemporary black hat of terrorism, and that provided tremendous assistance to the political development Fellman sees starting in the nineteenth century.

In his erudite conclusion, Fellman parses much contemporary terrorism scholarship, but then claims, “I believe that discussing terrorism as overlapping forms of political violence reveals more than eliminating or delimiting violent political activities in the name of theoretical clarification.” As Fellman amply demonstrates, the nation and its citizens have little compunction about exercising and excusing force for fraudulent ends. In a superb section on Congress’ justification of the imperial folly of the Phillipines, he shows how the rhetoric of nation building can cloak its opposite. The same thing is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The job of the intellectual should be to provide distinctions that reveal the contours of the political landscape, past and present, not contribute to the miasma of partisan, historical recrimination. There is nothing theoretical about that.

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