Monday, March 03, 2003

Terror, American style

Thanks to MB at WampumBlog for directing us to an excellent piece by Tim Giago:

Indians have lived with terrorism for 500 years

Go read the whole thing. The conclusion in particular is striking:
The fear and anxiety felt by the Indian people did not end at Wounded Knee. In many ways that was just the beginning. For the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne, it started in 1876.

With each passing day, there is still fear and anxiety in Indian country. We never know when or if the United States will take away what little we have remaining. Our language, our culture, our traditions and our spirituality have all been under constant attack for 500 years.

The American Indian knows what it is to live in the shadow of terrorism. And now the rest of America is learning.

I can already hear the whining from the jingoes about this: "This is just more blame-America stuff. We're the bad guys again. Hey, don't forget who it was that got hit on Sept. 11." That sort of thing. (I'll keep an eye on letters to the Tallahassee Democrat, where this ran.)

Truth Hurts

As something of a student of American Western history, I know that the ugly truth about Giago's piece is that it is almost exactly on the money. With one caveat: That terrorism in fact was a two-way practice during the long, slow process of the genocide, and it would be incomplete not to observe this. Typical was the act of scalping, which was intended to send a message of terror to its victims' compatriots. Indians were widely feared for this practice by white settlers, but they in fact learned it from Spanish conquistadors -- who of course had practiced it on their Indian victims for precisely that same purpose. Moreover, scalping was also widely practiced by both cavalrymen and white settlers as well.

In any case, one can certainly find abundant examples of acts of terrorism committed by Indians. Indeed, those instances were loudly trumpeted as calls to action for the subsequent extermination of entire tribes and cultures. There were, for instance, the massacres of about 14 white settlers in Salmon River country whose deaths precipitated the Nez Perce War of 1877; many of these killings in fact were payback for building antagonisms, but they were in any case cold-blooded and inexcusable acts of terrorism. Of course, they also served as a pretense, almost certainly unjustified, for waging war against and ultimately dislodging Joseph and his band from the Wallowas, where whites were chafing at the regular contact.

However, I think by any fair accounting the scales of terrorism weigh heavily on the side of white pioneers, whose bigotry, ruthlessness and mendaciousness in their dealings with the Indians were only outdone by their callous bloodthirstiness in their treatment of them. Just a few names from history make clear how sharply the scales tip: The Trail of Tears. Sand Creek. Wounded Knee. Chief Joseph. The litany could go on indefinitely.

And yet these pioneers, as embodied by the well-scrubbed "Little House on the Prairie" mythology, clearly could not see themselves the way the Indians rather naturally came to see them. Part of this no doubt was their ardent white supremacism and fervent belief in "Manifest Destiny," which lent themselves to the easy view of Indians as subhuman savages, scarcely the same species.

This isn't historical revisionism; it is now largely historical fact. For just a sample of how thorough the record is on this, I recommend Alvin M. Josephy's The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest, which gives a dispassionate but devastating account of the particulars of just how baldly the white pioneers wreaked terror on the native inhabitants of this corner of the country -- and with what ease these "morally superior" folk would steal from, lie to, abuse and even murder Indians.

Strange Fruit

Nor for that matter were Native Americans the only ones to experience terror at the hands of our white forefathers. African Americans, particularly those in the South, were subjected to a nearly 50-year reign of overt terrorism, from 1880 to 1930, a period now called by historians "the Lynching Era."

Between 1882 and 1942, according to statistics compiled by the Tuskegee Institute, there were 4,713 lynchings in the United States, of which 3,420 involved black victims. Mississippi topped the list, with 520 blacks lynched during that time period, while Georgia was a close second with 480; Texas’ 339 ranked third. And most scholars acknowledge that these numbers probably are well short of the actual total, since many lynchings (particularly in the early years of the phenomenon) were often backwoods affairs that went utterly unrecorded. In that era, it was not at all uncommon for a black man to simply disappear; sometimes his body might wash up in one of the local rivers, and sometimes not.

During the years leading up to the Civil War, blacks in the South were rarely the victims of lynchings -- since they were viewed as property, it was considered an act of theft to kill someone else’s slave. There was an exception to this: Putting down slave revolts. The fear of black insurrection (and there were a handful of real slave revolts, notably Nat Turner's 1831 Virginia rebellion, in which some sixty whites were killed) was so pervasive among Southerners that any rumor that one might occur could bring swift death to the alleged conspirators, even if, as was often the case, it later turned out there were no such plans. In any event, when lynching did occur in the years before the Civil War, the victims predominantly were whites. Many of these were in the antebellum South, where lynch-mob treatment was often administered to abolitionists and other "meddlers."

If blacks' slave status largely protected them from racial violence before the Civil War, then its abolition also left them remarkably vulnerable to such assaults upon the South's defeat. This became immediately manifest, during Reconstruction, when black freedmen were subjected to a litany of attacks at the hands of their former owners that went utterly unpunished. As documented by Philip Dray in his definitive study, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, these crimes turned up in hospital records and field reports from the federal Freedmen's Bureau, all of which described a variety of clubbings, scalpings, mutilations, hangings and even immolations of former slaves, all within the first year after Appomatox.

In 1866, the violence became discernibly more organized with the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, which originated with a claque of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, and spread like wildfire throughout the South. Initially much of the Klan night riders’ activities were relegated to whippings, a punishment intended to remind the ex-slaves of their former status. But as the assaults on blacks increased, so did the intensity of the violence visited on them, culminating in a steady stream of Klan lynchings between 1868 and 1871 (when the Klan was officially outlawed by the Grant Administration); at least one study puts the number at 20,000 blacks killed by the Klan in that period. In the ensuing years, the violence did little to decline, and in fact worsened, despite the Klan’s official banishment.

Moreover, in addition to the night-riding type of terrorist attacks, mass spectacle lynchings soon appeared. These were ritualistic mob scenes in which prisoners or even men merely suspected of crimes were often torn from the hands of authorities (if not captured beforehand) by large crowds and treated to beatings and torture before being put to death, frequently in the most horrifying fashion possible: people were flayed alive, had their eyes gouged out with corkscrews, and had their bodies mutilated before being doused in oil and burned at the stake. Black men were sometimes forced to eat their own hacked-off genitals. No atrocity was considered too horrible to visit on a black person, and no pain too unimaginable to inflict in the killing. (When whites, by contrast, were lynched, the act almost always was restricted to simple hanging.)

The violence reached a fever pitch in the years 1890-1902, when 1,322 lynchings of blacks (out of 1,785 total lynchings) were recorded at Tuskegee, which translates into an average of over 110 lynchings a year. The trend began to decline afterward, but continued well into the 1930s, leading some historians to refer to the years 1880-1930 as the "lynching period" of American culture.

'Keepin' the niggers down'

There are many postcards that recorded these lynchings, because the participants were rather proud of their involvement. This is clear from the postcards themselves, which frequently showed not merely the corpse of the victim but many of the mob members, whose visages ranged from grim to grinning. Sometimes, as in the Lige Daniels case, children were intentionally given front-row views. A lynching postcard from Florida in 1935, of a migrant worker named Rubin Stacy who had allegedly "threatened and frightened a white woman," shows a cluster of young girls gathered round the tree trunk, the oldest of them about 12, with a beatific expression as she gazes on his distorted features and limp body, a few feet away.

Indeed, lynchings seemed to be cause for outright celebration in the community. Residents would dress up to come watch the proceedings, and the crowds of spectators frequently grew into the thousands. Afterwards, memento-seekers would take home parts of the corpse or the rope with which the victim was hung. Sometimes body parts -- knuckles, or genitals, or the like -- would be preserved and put on public display as a warning to would-be black criminals.

That was the purported moral purpose of these demonstrations: Not only to utterly wipe out any black person merely accused of a crimes against whites, but to do it in a fashion intended to warn off future perpetrators. This was reflected in contemporary press accounts, which described the lynchings in almost uniformly laudatory terms, with the victim's guilt unquestioned, and the mob identified only as "determined men." Not surprisingly, local officials (especially local police forces) not only were complicit in many cases, but they acted in concert to keep the mob leaders anonymous; thousands of coroners' reports from lynchings merely described the victims' deaths occurring "at the hands of persons unknown." Lynchings were broadly viewed as simply a crude, but understandable and even necessary, expression of community will. This was particularly true in the South, where blacks were viewed as symbolic of the region’s continuing economic and cultural oppression by the North. As an 1899 editorial in the Newnan, Georgia, Herald and Advertiser explained it: "It would be as easy to check the rise and fall of the ocean’s tide as to stem the wrath of Southern men when the sacredness of our firesides and the virtue of our women are ruthlessly trodden under foot."

Such sexual paranoia was central to the lynching phenomenon. In the years following black emancipation -- during which time a previously tiny class of black criminals became swelled by the ranks of impoverished former slaves -- a vast mythology arose surrounding black men's supposed voracious lust for white women, a legend for which in truth there was scant evidence, and one that stands in stark contrast to (and perhaps has its psychological roots in) the reality of white men's longtime sexual domination of black women, particularly during the slavery era. In any event, the omnipresence of the threat of rape of white women by black men came to be almost universally believed by American whites. Likewise, conventional wisdom held that lynchings were a natural response to this threat: "The mob stands today as the most potential bulwark between the women of the South and such a carnival of crime as would infuriate the world and precipitate the annihilation of the Negro race," warned John Temple Graves, editor of the Atlanta Constitution. Such views were common not merely in the South, but among Northerners as well. The New York Herald, for instance, lectured its readers: "[T]he difference between bad citizens who believe in lynch law, and good citizens who abhor lynch law, is largely in the fact that the good citizens live where their wives and daughters are perfectly safe."

The cries of rape, for many whites in both South and North, raised fears not merely of sexual violence but of racial mixing, known commonly as "miscegenation," which was specifically outlawed in some 30 states. White supremacy was not only commonplace, it was in fact the dominant worldview of Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries; most Caucasians believed they represented Nature’s premier creation (having been informed this by a broad range of social scientists of the period, whose views eventually coalesced into the pseudo-science known as eugenics), and that any "dilution" of those strains represented a gross violation of the natural order. Thus it was not surprising that a number of lynching incidents actually resulted from the discovery of consensual relations between a black man and a white woman.

Underlying the stated fear of black rape, moreover, was a broad fear of economic and cultural domination of white Americans by blacks and various other "outsiders," including Jews. These fears were acute in the South, where blacks became a convenient scapegoat for the mesh of poverty that lingered in the decades following the Civil War. Lynching in fact was frequently inspired not by criminality, but by any signs of economic and social advancement by blacks who, in the view of whites, had become too "uppity."

There were, of course, other components of black suppression: segregation in the schools, disenfranchisement of the black vote, and the attendant Jim Crow laws that were common throughout the South. But lynching was the linchpin in the system, because it was in effect state-supported terrorism whose stated intent was to suppress blacks and other minorities, in no small part by eliminating non-whites as competitors for economic gain. These combined to give lynching a symbolic value as a manifestation of white supremacy. The lynch mob was not merely condoned but in fact celebrated as an expression of the white community's will to keep African-Americans in their thrall. As a phrase voiced commonly in the South expressed it, lynching was a highly effective means of "keeping the niggers down."

An honest look

Now, none of this is to suggest that America was to blame for the murderous acts that occurred on 9/11. It is instead to suggest that for the first time Americans -- white Americans especially -- tasted the awfulness of the dread and fear that they often have unthinkingly, and more often unknowingly, inflicted on others. It is this reality that should make us step back and contemplate what kind of war on terrorism we want to be waging.

The writer Walter Mosley, who watched the World Trade Center collapse, reflected on this recently in an interview with Jerry Large of the Seattle Times:
Mosley writes that most Americans believe our history and political culture flow from the most noble of concepts: freedom, democracy, opportunity. But that isn't entirely true. "We are fooled by the rhetoric of our national heritage and, in that hoodwinked condition, we make false assumptions about the face we show to the world."

Do we just want to wage a war of revenge and intimidation? One that will just put the rest of the world under our thumb? Doesn't that strike anyone else as just more of the same? Terrorism begetting terrorism begetting terrorism. Death begetting death.

I have a daughter who is going to turn 2 soon. I don't want her to grow up in a world where fear reigns. I don't want her to be fighting a fresh generation of terrorism in 20 years because we fought the current round stupidly and unthinkingly.

I want to wage A Real War on Terrorism. I want justice for those 3,000 people who died Sept. 11, and I want justice for my country. I want Al Qaeda and its henchmen brought to heel. But more than that, I want us to confront the fact that violence is coming at us from all sides now. And some of it is indeed revenge for our own brand of terrorism.

Someone needs to cut the cycle of terrorism. And its needs to be America. Now.

More to the point, we obviously cannot count on our national leaders (particularly not those in the White House) to do the job. If we want to wage this war -- a serious war against terrorism, not a fake one designed to inflate poll ratings -- it's going to have to be up to the citizens. I'm hoping in coming days to come up with ways that all of us can make a difference.

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