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A History of Violence and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

A History of Violence and the Myth of American Exceptionalism

I do not have a medal or garlands for Beverly Cage, but I can pay her my thanks. In “Terrorism and the American Experience,” Cage does admirably well something extremely important and difficult. She provides “an overview of the burgeoning historiography on terrorism,” while articulating “how we might integrate such work into narratives of the American past and present.”‘ The importance of the task is clear. Long at the margins of American concern, “terrorism” has moved since September 11, 2001, to the center of the American political universe. Transforming such diverse realms as security doctrine and the law, it aches for historical perspective.

The difficulties are legion, as Cage ably documents. Shot through with subjectivity and rank moralism, the construct “terrorism” is notoriously hard to define. The provenance of politicians, security experts, journalists, and scholars, talk of terrorism is as sprawling as it is polemical. And, however urgent today, the study of terrorism has historically been shunned by historians of America, for whom the tacit assumptions of American exceptionalism have gen- erally rendered terrorism something exotic and aberrant in the nation’s experience. Cage’s essay itself has a polemical quality as it tries both to unsetde that comforting faith and orient future research toward an appreciation of the violence suffiising the American past. The result, surely to the chagrin of self-appointed guardians of America’s historical virtue such as Lynne Cheney, is a renewed call for historians of America to do what they have done so well for so many years: focus on inequality, injustice, and social conflict as integral parts of the American narrative.

Cage’s essay is really two in one. The first section summarizes the evolution of and enduring tensions within the protean world of terrorism studies. Cage’s overview strikes the essential notes. She reports that the term “terrorism” is of recent vintage and devel- oped a strictly pejorative connation more recently still; historians and others must there- fore wrestle with the issues of anachronism and “bias” just when using the term. She also identifies the key points of controversy within definitions of terrorism (above all, whether states can be terrorists) and the arch-cynicism suspecting that the label designates little more than violence that states do not like. In general, she offers a portrait of a discourse certain of its relevance (evident in generous funding for terrorism research) but shaky in its foundations, dictating a stance of caution toward the entire topic.

Jeremy Varon is an associate professor of history at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College.

‘ Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History, 98 Gune2011), 74.

Soi: 10.I093/iahist/jarlll © The Author 2011. Puhiished by Oxford University Press on hehalf of che Organizarion of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:

June 2011 The Journal of American History 121

122 The Journal of American History June 2011

To my ear, however. Gage’s caution becomes at times an analytic detachment; having read so much and being so attuned to the reductive quality of virtually any general statement about terrorism, she winds up saying too litde in her own voice that might help untie the conceptual knots tangling the discourse or alert tis to productive ideas and tensions within it.

For starters, I am not sure that the essay quite conveys the stakes in the problem of definition and why the specter of partisanship proves so irrepressible. For decades now, developing a universally valid normative definition of terrorism has been the holy grail of the entire discourse. For neutral researchers, such clarity would lend consistency to analy- sis. For those whose mission, implicitly or explicitly, is to combat terrorism, the promise is much greater: to have at last objective, supra-ideological grounds for marking some violence (“terrorism”) as intrinsically illegitimate, irrespective of its associated cause and the self-justification of its agents. This is very much the project of Bruce Hoffman, America’s most infiuential terrorism researcher. In a widely taught reference work, Hoffman proffers an essentially juridical definition: terrorism comprises specific, aggressive acts (such as attacks on civilians) in the context of irregular war that are morally and legally beyond the pale, and which should therefore be universally condemned.^ This framing, evident in the early rhetoric of the George W. Bush administration, suggests the foundation of a true “global war on terror” in which the international community, mutually invested in certain norms, cooperates in policing rogue practices. The grand intent is to denude the discourse on terrorism of its subjectivity (distilled in the ubiquitous observation that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”) and make the struggle against terrorism akin to prohibiting the use of mustard gas and other nefarious weapons.

This construction, however, may appear to founder on the double standard. States are often zealous in condemning the putative transgressions of typically “weak” nonstate actors, while lax in restraining their own conduct. Hoffman addresses this problem by noting that states are accountable, at least in principle, to internationally agreed-upon rules of war (and the treat- ment of detainees) and the legal apparatus for their enforcement. But here dismal realities crash against the ideal. When countries such as Russia and China declare themselves all but unanswerable to human rights standards, when Israel categorically dismisses even sound charges of war crimes, and when the United States defiandy ignores the Geneva Convention, the Convention against Torture, and its own domestic law, Hoffman’s assurance of structural evenhandedness counts for litde. (The efforts of the Obama administration to correct for the excesses of its predecessor have been to this point feeble, while new information surfaces sug- gesting the “dirty” nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.) One sees anew how real-world power dynamics and the strength of national agendas condition the discourse on terrorism and compromise the quest for “neutrality” with hypocrisy and even bad faith.

Gage may be right, then, to note that despite all the haiid-wringing, “most modern definitions share certain elements that distinguish terrorism from other forms of violence.”^ But this agreement has not translated into effective transnational mobilization against terrorism; nor has the moralism informing loudly professed abhorrence of terrorism meant that countries such as the United States combat terrorism in minimally moral or legal ways. From this mess, one may infer the shabby current state—notwithstanding the legacy of two world wars, several genocides, and countless campaigns against civilians—of international norms and efforts to discipline practices of violence, whether from states or subnational and

^ Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York, 2006), •* Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience,” 74.

A History of Violence and the Myth of American Exceptionalism 123

transnational groups. Circumspect in her approach. Gage fails to address this bigger, global picture of failure, in which the United States is deeply implicated.

In a similar vein, I would have liked Gage to reflect on how diffictilt it is in the American context any longer to think about contemporary terrorism without also thinking rigorously about the “war on terror.” The point, of course, is not to assert moral equivalencies between, say, the abuses at Guantánamo and a suicide attack in a market in Baghdad. Nor is it merely a matter of “bringing the state back in” to one’s analysis by tmderstanding better cotinterterror- ism policy, past and present. Rather, the value lies in understanding the role ofthe state—with its immense discutsive power and material resources—in constructing the object itself (“tetror- ism”) and both setting and skewing the terms of conflict. As added yield, whatever we learn about that role in out current moment may be applicable to past episodes of terrorism.

Finally, Gage might have done well to explore how research on innumerable terrorist conflicts may reveal common (if not universal) dimensions of their structure, which in turn could enable insight into the identity and behavior of the antagonists. The intent is not to sustain the dreary practice of selecting out family resemblances to group like with like in some great taxonomical exercise. Instead, it is to appreciate the power of structure in conditioning agency.

My own research of several “cases” suggests a tendency of terrorist conflicts to settle into rigid binaries defined by intense righteousness on both sides. Within the surprisingly com- mon framework of “cosmic war,” even secular terrorists typically see their struggle as an epic contest of good and evil. The enemy, by extension, takes on the quality of an ahsolute Other, whose annihilation is warranted by the extent of its depravity and destructive power. Put otherwise, rately if evet do terrorists champion violence simply as a regrettable necessity—a political expedient to be used when all other means of effecting change have failed. Instead, cultures of resistance often descend into cults of violence. Violence itself, within terrorists’ grandiose framing, becomes an essentially sacred act that ennobles its perpetrator and prom- ises, by means of fear and blood, to redeem a fallen society, order, or world.

So too do states often display a severe and patently disproportionate response to terror- ism, whethet evident in literal overkill tactics, rhetorical excess, or the whittling away of the very freedoms and respect for the rule of law they ostensibly defend. Rathet than addressing what is typically a manageable threat, they rage against a great civilizational enemy whose defeat takes on the quality of a crusade. At a sad extreme, terror becomes a preferred means for fighting terrorism.

Within this binary, both “sides” adopt a stance of absolute virtue. By means of that claim—and in a great structural irony—they are increasingly prone to reproduce the quali- ties in their enemy that they disparage (disregard for law, the cheapening of life, etc.). Ter- rorism, then, seems a mutually degrading species of conflict in which sworn enemies assume a fateful likeness. By an added twist, reconciliation becomes more difficult the deeper this shared taint and congruence runs. Within this model, developed by means of the kind of cross-case comparisons Gage generally shuns, simple hypocrisy or bad faith recedes as an explanation of conduct. Instead, the model emphasizes how antagonists grow captive to the structure they create, demanding greater analytic attention to the structure itself

Gage seems on surer footing in the essay’s latter, more spirited segment. In it, she asserts that, whatever its reputation, the United States has a long history of domestic violence, whether in the form of frontier wars, Ku Klux Klan terror, labor radicalism (and its

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suppression). New Left and black power militancy, or recent right-wing extremism. “The mission,” she deftly says, can be “the message.” And her mission is clearly to deal “yet one more blow to American exceptionalism [by] showing that the United States has never stood entirely alone on matters of violence, rebellion, and political confiict.”‘*

The intelligence and care with which Gage deals this blow elevates it far above ideo- logical score settling. For her, acknowledging legacies of violence is far more important than necessarily labeling such violence as terrorism or declaring America “like Europe” (or any other benighted region). In a sense, the violence—however painful—is itself secondary. For Gage, violence is most importantly an expression or symptom of underlying tensions, conflicts, and inequalities, whether on the axes of class, race, or ideological affinity. To deny a history of violence is therefore to minimize the conflicts at its source. The great potential cost of flattering America with a myth of relative harmony is continued inattention to problems warranting urgent concern.

This was precisely the sensation I had when immersed in study of the “revolutionary” violence of the late 1960s in the United States. Until very recently the fractious and plainly violent nature of the period had been utterly marginalized, whether in left-wing narratives celebrating the reformist gains of the “good sixties” of the middle decade, or even in right-wing screeds against the era, which tend to focus on individual licentipus- ness. Through it all, my most disturbing insight was that none of the root causes of̂ the period’s volatility—militarism, inequality, and systemic racism^have been adequately addressed in the years since. (Identifying these as root causes does not in itself, I should stress, exonerate individual acts of violence.) America is therefore left open not only to future experiences of civil unrest but also to the equally dispiriting possibility that crip- pling problems simply grind away, hidden in plain sight.^

Reading Gage’s essay, it was gratifying all these years later to hear my worry echoed in such a thoughtful, historically informed assessment of the hazards of minimizing legacies of violence, wherever tucked away in American history. As a professional historian, it is likewise heartenin’g to see a peer trying to mobilize the capacities and methods of our discipline toward a profoundly ethical end: to minimize violence and the bitterness so often at its source.

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