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Book Review

Redefining terrorism in American history

John Brown, an abolitionist, led an attack in 1859 aimed at helping to arm slaves. He was defeated, caught, and hanged. John Brown, an abolitionist, led an attack in 1859 aimed at helping to arm slaves. He was defeated, caught, and hanged. (International Portrait Gallery)
By Michael Washburn
March 19, 2010

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The 21st century has been good to terror — it has reinvigorated its politics and reimagined its aesthetics. And Americans have developed a horrific fascination with it. Since 9/11, the terror industry has managed to wed political and personal anxiety into a siege mentality.

Academia bought stock in the industry, too. In 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. 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’’ enters obliquely into this discourse. Rather than directly examining such contemporary attacks as 9/11, the book explores five episodes from the 19th century: John Brown’s raid, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Haymarket, and the Philippines War. Fellman’s provocative thesis is that terrorism, as practiced by Americans and their government, has been essential to the nation’s political formation, providing a “counternarrative of American national development . . . a history of domination rather than the progressive unfolding of democracy and freedom.’’

John Brown’s violent abolitionist assault provides the purest example. Brown, a man divinely inspired, acted on his frustration and disgust with the timidity of fellow abolitionists and federal appeasement of slave owners. After promptly crushing Brown’s reckless insurgency, the government conducted a laughable trial, condemned him, and executed him.

Brown’s story demonstrates the essentials 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 an American dialectic of revolutionary and reactionary terrorism. Brown’s “revolutionary’’ actions placed him outside of the national consensus, and the state responded with “reactionary’’ terrorism: judicial murder.

Fellman does not define “reactionary’’ terrorism solely as the abuse of state power. His other episodes do not rely on formal mechanisms of state justice. In its treatment of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Philippines War, the book bursts with 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.

Few of the facts contained here 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.’’ As such, it makes a sweeping argument for the expansion of the default definition of terrorism, a variation of the vernacular definition above: Terrorism is violence America commits.

As sympathetic to this impulse as I am, it is fundamentally ahistorical. The meaning of a word like terrorism 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 his exposure of American hypocrisy.

In his conclusion, Fellman 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 demonstrates, the nation and its citizens have little compunction about exercising force for fraudulent ends. In a section on Congress’s justification of the imperial folly of the Philippines, he shows how the rhetoric of nation building can cloak its opposite — as is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The job of the intellectual should be to provide distinctions that reveal the contours of the political landscape, not contribute to the miasma of partisan, historical recrimination. There is nothing theoretical about that.

Michael Washburn is assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

IN THE NAME OF GOD AND COUNTRY: Reconsidering Terrorism in American History By Michael Fellman

Yale University, 288 pp., $29.95