This book takes a topic of undeniable historical significance and reduces it to a left-wing style of mush. Violence is, as the black militant H. Rap Brown famously put it in 1967, “as American as cherry pie.” Michael Fellman vividly describes myriad acts of savagery by American citizens who aimed to achieve political domination or to augment powers that they already possessed. His subtitle is misleading: the book surveys only the fifty or so years that began with John Brown’s raids in Kansas and Harpers Ferry in the 1850s and ended with the U.S. Army’s defeat of the Philippine independence movement at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Still, the collective bloodshed during that period surpassed that of any similar span in American history: 600,000 combined deaths in the Civil War, followed by hundreds of murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan and other white vigilantes during Reconstruction, multiple assaults by police and state militias to squelch labor uprisings, the military’s crushing of resistance by Indian tribes on the Great Plains, and then the brutal war across the Pacific to secure America’s first overseas colony. Fellman’s grisly narrative, stuffed with self-justifying statements by the perpetrators, certainly establishes a record of inhumanity that most celebrators of American liberty and progress minimize or ignore.
But was all or even most of this violence “terrorism”? The French historian Henry Laurens defines that explosive term sensibly, if broadly, as “violence of a political origin deployed against a state and/or a society by a non-state actor.” Fellman, in contrast, refuses to draw any distinction between the acts of the powerful and those of their sworn enemies. In his view, terrorism is simply “the more primal form of warfare”—an almost routine occurrence when partisans of all kinds “drop the mask of legality.”
So he maintains that the blueclad troops under William Tecumseh Sherman who devastated much of South Carolina and Georgia in 1864 were engaging in terrorism, as were the Confederate nightriders who attacked Union sympathizers in Missouri and other border states. For Fellman, the ranks of terrorists include both Chicago’s bomb-happy anarchists, one of whom may have thrown the bomb that killed seven cops at Haymarket Square in 1886, and the prosecutor, judge, and vengeful jury who—on hearsay evidence—condemned seven would-be revolutionaries to death. Sherman’s march to the sea and the Chicago trial were both quite legal, but no matter.
Fellman makes the ancillary case that religious zealotry motivated all these actors, implying that a fever for holy war afflicted Christian Americans in the Gilded Age as much as it does Islamist radicals today. But his evidence is quite flimsy. John Brown certainly believed the Lord wanted him to purge the sin of slavery with pike and musket. But Sherman was, as the author acknowledges, a “committed agnostic” who quoted from Psalms now and then only to please the pietists in his ranks. Straining to depict the Haymarket affair as a conflict saturated with God talk, Fellman quotes at length from a single speech given in 1884 by Albert Parsons, the only American-born anarchist sent to the gallows, in which he compared greedy plutocrats to the haughty guests at Belshazzar’s feast. For their part, neither the prosecutor nor the judge in the notorious trial seems to have invoked the Almighty at all. One may as well claim that Barack Obama believes that the United States is fighting its own jihad in Afghanistan because he ends his speeches with “God Bless America.”
Fellman’s all-inclusive definition of terrorism is a greater problem. His position is similar to Noam Chomsky’s argument that the victims of “state terrorism” far outnumber those of activists armed only with home-made bombs and rifles. Both writers ignore the difference between the brutality endemic to modern war and acts purposely intended to kill the innocent and demonstrate the prowess of the exploited. The American soldiers who administered the “water cure”—an early form of waterboarding – to Filipino prisoners of war were following orders, monstrous though they were. To lump them together with anarchists who vowed to "destroy from the earth every unproductive member of society” conveys nothing but the sad truism that every ideological mission has the potential to turn barbarous. One learns little about what motivates either group, and nothing at all about the consequences of their actions.
In 1970, the historian Richard Hofstadter co-edited, with Michael Wallace, an anthology of documents about the history of violence in America that was far more illuminating than Fellman’s volume. The editors identified eight varieties of violence: political, economic, racial, religious-ethnic, anti-radical and police, personal, assassinations and terrorism, and "Violence in the Name of Law, Order, and Morality.” Hofstadter, whom Fellman erroneously calls a “conservative historian” understood that purposeful violence is a many-faceted, ever evolving historical phenomenon that deserves to be analyzed with the same attention to context and particulars with which scholars view other major features of the past.
Unfortunately, Fellman was not content to create an able narrative of mass political mayhem that began on the eve of Civil War and continued for the rest of the nineteenth century and beyond. He knew that labeling all of it “terrorism” would likely win him a contract from a good press and, perhaps, draw praise from those on the left for whom “the war on terror” has always been a clever way to rationalize intervention and empire. But taking Occam’s sharp razor to such a diverse array of historical examples only ends up dulling the mind that wields it.
Four decades ago, Hofstadter and Wallace made a sage observation that both erstwhile revolutionaries such as H. Rap Brown and academics such as Michael Fellman might heed. At a time when “armed struggle” was in fashion on the young left, they noted that political violence had been used far more frequently and effectively by repressive officials than by aspiring liberators. When American radicals take up arms, they nearly always seal their own fate. Violence may be a weapon of the weak, but it is seldom one that advances their cause. H. Rap Brown, who, having converted to Islam, is named Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, might now agree. He currently resides in a maximum-security penitentiary, where he is serving a life sentence for shooting two Atlanta police officers in 2000. The policemen had come to arrest Al-Amin for failing to appear in court after he received a speeding ticket.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent and a professor of history at Georgetown University. He is completing a history of the American left to be published in 2011 by Knopf.