Segment from Fear Tactics

Statements of Fact?

Can governments be guilty of terrorism? From the French Revolution to John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, BackStory riffs on the historical connections between terror and the state.

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**This is a transcription of an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in language in this rebroadcast.**

BRIAN: This is BackStory, the show that turns to history to untangle the America of today. I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th Century Guy.

BRIAN: Today on our show, we’re looking at the history of the kind of violence that today we call terrorism.

PETER: And we started off with a look at the Wall Street bombing of 1920. Back then, Americans’ idea of the terrorist was the bomb-throwing anarchist. Now, of course, terrorism’s meaning is much broader.

BRIAN: So before we go any farther, let’s say quickly what that meaning is. There are a lot of different definitions and a lot of disagreements about what counts and what doesn’t. But there are some basics most experts, at least, agree on. Peter, check them off for us.

PETER: Well, terrorism uses violence or the threat of violence. Its goals are political in some sense. It’s meant to frighten people beyond the immediate targets of the attack. And it’s carried out by what the experts call non-state actors. Which is to say violence done by governments is generally not considered terrorism.

ED: Now that’s what the experts say. But as we were preparing this show, a lot of people posted comments on our website about that last part of the definition, the part about government actions not counting as terrorism. One person brought up the Allied terror bombings during World War II, which targeted civilians in Germany and Japan. Another wondered if the Boston Massacre might have been terrorism. And once we started thinking about the relationship between terror and the state, well, we realized that there is in fact a pretty complicated history there. So we’re going to take a couple of minutes and talk that through.

BRIAN: You know, we just heard when I talked to Bev Gage that this notion of non-state actors being terrorists has been around for, well, almost all of my period. I’m curious to know from you, Peter, going all the way back in time, whether this has always been the case.

PETER: Well, Brian, in a way, the answer to this is that the first great use of the term that word comes from in modern language is from the state, from the French revolutionary state in imposing through violent means a, well, a reign of terror over its own population. That idea of terror for people who observed the French Revolution from abroad was, the world turned absolutely upside down and anarchic with heads flying off the guillotine. Kind of the wrath of God. It was an awful, awful image. And it’s one that permeated the Western imagination over the next century and beyond.

So why would Americans worry about terror here? This is the land of the free. We do things peacefully and lawfully. We write constitutions.

Well, this is the age of the revolution. And that revolution is spread from France. I mean, the French are actively spreading it across the continent, but it comes to the New World. And it comes to the New World in the most unsettling place, and that’s Saint-Domingue, or what we call Haiti today, the first great black republic.

And that revolt of the slaves against their white masters epitomizes the kind of fears that Americans are going to have. That is, terror could reach America not because we have to overthrow a king and an aristocracy and an established church. We don’t have to turn our world upside down. But there are people in our midst who might want to turn our world upside down. That would be the slaves.

ED: So really from the time of the American Revolution, because the Haitian Revolution is right at the turn of the 19th century, people say, my goodness, we have a very large captive population in our midst. What’s to stop them from poisoning us, from slitting our throats in the night?

PETER: And you know, Ed, one of the things that’s really striking about the American understanding of this sort of violent insurrection is that it’s increasingly focused on individuals. And I think that’s the bridge toward the idea of the terrorist. This is the century, the romantic century in which the individual is seen as having the capacity to change the world. And this is, in a way, the anti-image, the anti-hero, the idea of the great servile leader.

ED: That’s a great point, Peter, because if you think about the history of servile insurrection in America, it’s all identified with a single leader. Now this begins in some ways back with Haiti with Toussaint Louverture, who is seen as sort of the great general rising up from among the enslaved to lead this. It takes almost no time to start appearing in the United States.

In Richmond, Virginia, Gabriel, 1800. Denmark Vesey, Charleston, 1822. Nat Turner, again in Virginia, 1831, ’32. The white South feels like they’ve calmed that because there’s no other large-scale identifiable slave revolt in the latter part of the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s. But then suddenly, in many ways the worst fear of the white South emerges, a white man who is going to ally himself with the enslaved to attack from within.

Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, today West Virginia. John Brown leads a band of black and white men into the armory of the United States. And so this is beginning to sound like, Brian, your 20th-century terrorism right now. What you’re trying to control are the means of destruction. And they are going to take over the railroad and the armory of mass-produced weapons. And when they get that, they are going to distribute them to the enslaved people and lead a rebellion.

I do believe that what’s new about John Brown in the late 1850s is he’s looking at this in a very systematic way. And he’s saying, you know, the entire American state, the federal government, the state government, the armed forces have been built to subjugate African-Americans. The entire American state is built around perpetuating slavery.

And what John Brown says is that slavery is itself a form of state-sponsored terrorism, that it is a daily assault upon the independence, the integrity of people’s lives. And the only way to fight that is with a force of equal force. This is what really freaked white Americans out, is they could recognize that as crazy as John Brown might seem or as might be portrayed, there was a relentless logic to what he was doing.

BRIAN: Yeah, Ed. And you’ve really put your finger on why John Brown truly is the bridge to 20th-century terrorism. What John Brown does is return us to that fundamental knowledge that real terror is held in the hands of the state, the state supporting all of those slaveholders. And so when those anarchists start challenging industrialism in the late 19th century, they are saying, these capitalists are terrorizing the workers. They’re tearing them apart limb by limb with their horrible machinery. And when terrorists challenge the state in the 20th century, they’re saying, your smart bombs and your armies and your munitions are terrorizing our people. We are simply exposing the terror that is inherent in the state.