Showing posts with label Terrorism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Terrorism. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Jesse James and Anwar al-Awlaki

Heather Cox Richardson

There has been a great deal of debate over whether or not it was legal for the Obama administration to order the September 30 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. It seems unlikely to go far in the realm of political discussion, since al-Awlaki was not on American soil, and since few Americans seem to have digested the fact that, although he had a foreign name and was clearly implicated in major terrorist attacks on the United States, al-Awlaki was born in America and was thus an American citizen.

A similar question did, though, roil American politics in the 1880s: should the government be able to order the assassination of an American citizen? Then, unlike now, it was discussed on both sides of the political divide as a principled question of executive power and the rights of citizens.

The targeted citizen, in that case, was Jesse James.

James had fought for the Confederacy as one of Quantrill’s Raiders in Missouri. These men were so hated by the pro-Union Missourians that, when the end of the war permitted most Confederate soldiers to go home in peace, Unionists refused to acknowledge the Raiders as Confederate soldiers. Someone put a bullet in Jesse as he made his way home from the fighting.

For their part, James and his buddies were not cheerfully reconstructed ex-Confederates. They survived by robbing trains, banks, and express companies, all of which were associated after the Civil War with the Republican federal government. But James insisted that he was not a criminal; he had been forced outside the law by the government itself. After the war, ex-Confederate Democrats in Missouri could not vote, sit on juries, work as lawyers, or hold government offices. James maintained that the true perpetrators of the crimes for which he was blamed were Republicans. In his view, state laws barring Democrats from access to legal protection, juries, and offices guaranteed that he could never get a fair hearing. According to a sympathetic biographer (he referred to Jesse as “an angel of light”), their manhood forced men like James to “turn upon that law that hounded them and that society that hunted them, and outrage and defy it.”

Missouri officials had no luck bringing James to justice. Neither did Pinkerton detectives, hired by angry express company owners. (The James Gang robbed stagecoaches, banks, and trains and committing a host of murders along the way.) Finally, in desperation, the Missouri governor, T. T. Crittenden, persuaded a member of James’s own gang to murder him. Bob Ford shot James as he straightened a picture on the wall. When Ford and his brother pled guilty to the murder and were sentenced to death, the governor promptly pardoned them and paid them the bounty he had placed on James’s head.

Predictably, Democrats were outraged by the prospect of an elected Republican official arranging for the murder of a Democrat. But many Republicans were also unsettled. Crittenden had “hired an assassin” as if he were a potentate, one Republican newspaper editor wrote. Popular opinion swung quickly to an acknowledgement that James was a criminal, and even rejoiced that he was out of commission, but rejected entirely the idea that government officials should have the power to ignore legal processes and simply murder their domestic enemies. James’s portrayal as a man persecuted by the government made him a popular hero.

While any parallels should not be pushed too far, James’s situation was not unlike that of al-Awlaki. Both appear to have been criminals who protested a government that would not acknowledge their grievances. At the same time, al-Awlaki’s case raises questions the James case did not, questions, for example, about the nature of war powers during times of undeclared war, and how international terrorism should affect Constitutional rights. These are not unimportant issues. It’s too bad that they will most likely not get the bipartisan public airing they need in the wake of al-Awlaki’s death, the same public debate that followed Jesse James’s assassination.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

History and America's Most Wanted

Randall Stephens

"The United States adheres to its own theory of history," writes Paul Berman in the New Republic. He weighs in on the country's peculiar view of the past and American ideas of progress and looks at the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound and the larger meaning of his death. History, in the view of many citizens, has a clear direction, an identifieable purpose. "In our own liberal and democratic theory of history," says Berman, "doctrines like Al Qaeda’s are doomed to defeat. This is because, in our estimation, the mad and fantastical doctrine about resurrecting an ancient caliphate is comparable to other such doctrines that we have encountered during the last century—e.g., the doctrine about resurrecting the Roman Reich in an Aryan version, or the doctrine about resurrecting the ancient Russian peasant communes in the form of a proletarian Soviet civilization." Here's the sort of inevitability that historians find so out of whack.

"But let us also recognize that, beyond the details of an efficient operation," Berman remarks, "the symbolism is hard to mistake."

And, since the present war is ultimately a war of ideas, let us not fail to recognize that symbolism is ultimately crucial. The symbolism of this present raid says: Relentlessness expresses history. History is not on bin Laden’s side. History is on the side of democracy and freedom. History will not be deterred. Yes, we should ask ourselves: Does it make sense to speak about abstractions like “history”? Does the relentlessness of a manhunt contain any deeper meanings at all? There is an answer to these questions. The abstractions express a meaning if we choose to endow them with meaning. Ten years of man-hunting suggest that we have chosen to do so.>>>

What is the larger meaning of bin Laden's demise? How will it shape America's relation with the world? After shouts of "USA, USA, USA" have died down and revelers have put away their gigantic flags, will we see what the larger significance or symbolism of his death is? Perhaps it will take many years for the implications to play out.

In the meantime it might be interesting to consider other "most wanted" figures who have plagued the government and struck fear in the hearts of citizens. (Caveat: I don't intend any sort of moral equivalency with bin Laden.) The list below could include many more, but here's a partial who's who:

* Geronimo, mid to late 19th century

* Billy the Kid, 1860s-1880

* Frank and Jesse James, late 19th century

* Pancho Villa, nineteen-teens

* John Dillinger, 1930s

* Al Capone, 1920s-1930s

* Ted Kaczynski, 1970s-1990s

* Timothy McVeigh, 1990s

* Mohammed Farah Aidid, 1990s

* Eric Robert Rudolph, 1990s-2000s

Take Pancho Villa. The Mexican revolutionary and guerilla fighter brought Americans to new heights of anxiety. This feared bandit killed 34 Americans in 1916 and became, for Americans at least, one of the most reviled figures of the day. Villa--a liberator in the eyes of many of his countrymen--was thought to be a murderous blackguard, a villainous butcher, a subhuman thug. President Woodrow Wilson sent General John J. Pershing to hunt down Villa in Mexico. But, because of the outlaw's widespread support and the unfamiliar, hostile terrain, Pershing failed.

In 1916 the Atlanta Constitution excitedly reported what proved to be a false account of Villa's death: "Villa's body has been dug up out of a two weeks' old grave by Carlos Carranza, nephew of General Carranza" (April 17). He "Died in Agony" so went the report. The writer, at the end of the piece, did mention that some doubted the claims.

Villa did finally meet his end in 1923. He had received a pardon and was retired to a ranch. Villa, said Will Rogers in what passed for humor back then, died of Mexican natural causes. He was shot in the back. Americans let their rage melt into laughter.

Historians now can read from the Villa trouble something about American culture and diplomacy in the Wilson years. What did he symbolize? What did his menacing presence on the U.S. southern border mean for Americans? For that matter, what have so many other criminals, arch-villains, terrorists, and "blackguards" at home and abroad meant to Americans over the decades, centuries?