Terror in Black and White

Human Rights

Even before the death-colored clouds had cleared from the skies over lower Manhattan the words 'worst' and 'first' were already becoming synonymous. Three years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, Sept. 11 has become a sort of touchstone in the common consciousness, a moment of catastrophic unreality that was force-fed into our real world. Looking back at the all-too-recent events of that day, it's easy to understand why 9/11 seems to have blotted out all prior memory and conviction. In its scale and media-age spectacle, it was unprecedented. Its repercussions have only yet begun to echo. It remains the context and subtext for this moment in history.

9/11 is the ghost in our bloodstream.

Still it must be said: the idea that terror is new to American soil has been politically beneficial to the Bush administration which, in the absence of any domestic accomplishments to speak of, has staked its future on "keeping America safe." In the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a misstatement made amid the trauma of so much death and destruction gradually calcified into a fact of public perception: this has never happened before.

But history is long and truth told, terrorism in America is nearly as old as America itself. Only a century earlier, a terrorist had actually succeeded in assassinating a President of the United States. William McKinley died in 1901, shot by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist assassin. And if we think of terrorism as organized acts of violence directed at civilians in order to instill fear and affect politics, then it is impossible to ignore the fact that racism and terrorism are inseparable in American history. On one level, race is irrelevant on this bleak anniversary – black remains are indistinguishable among the lost thousands cremated in terrorist flames in NY and DC. But the past is relevant here. Race is the link connecting acts of terrorism as disparate as the guerilla raids fought over slavery in Kansas in the 1850s through the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

To cut to the chase, American history is a harvest of strange fruit.

It would be easy, at this distant remove, to forget that Timothy McVeigh, the homegrown terrorist who orchestrated the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that claimed 168 lives did so in order to ignite a race war. McVeigh's attack was literally taken from the pages of Andrew McDonald's racist potboiler "The Turner Diaries." McVeigh himself had spoken at length about the federal government's role in usurping the rights of white people and argued that the government had become an instrument solely for furthering the interests of people of color and Jews.

At the time it occurred, Oklahoma City was referred to as the worst instance of terrorism on American soil. But that assessment required a certain historical near-sightedness to be true. The 1995 bombing was not even the worst act of terrorism in the state's history. The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, in which bands of armed and deputized whites attacked black residents of the city, resulted in twice as many deaths as the Oklahoma City bombing by the most conservative estimates. (The town of Rosewood, Florida was burned completely off the map by white rioters that same year.) In 1906, entire sections of Atlanta were burned to the ground and untold numbers of blacks were pulled from their homes and lynched. Just after the Civil War, Southern whites killed 46 blacks, injured over a hundred and burned 90-odd homes to the ground in Memphis – while Northern troops stationed in the city watched. And these are only a handful of the scores of town and neighborhood burnings that characterized black life in the pre-Civil Rights era.

Nor can it be said that McVeigh was a historical anomaly. Just over a century earlier, the organized terrorist campaigns of alleged Southern Redeemers began with the goal of eradicating black political participation during Reconstruction. Early in the 20th century, their racist campaigns were mythologized by Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith. As the late writer Ralph Wiley pointed out, McVeigh bombed a building in order to live out the plotlines of a novel in the same way that 19th century terrorists attempted to live out the plotlines of "Birth of a Nation." Griffith's masterpiece of racial propaganda was based upon Dixon's novel "The Leopard's Spots." The success of "Birth of a Nation" inspired a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan – which had nearly died out – and became the basis for their ritual burning of the cross (an act that had been invented for it's dramatic value to the story.) The terror directed at black people who had the audacity to take the Emancipation Proclamation at face value resulted in over 3000 lynchings between 1880 and 1920.

The names, dates and casualties of these assorted inhumanities is innumerable: the pandemic of rape directed at black women after Reconstruction, the litany of assassinations, the fatal bombing of the home of NAACP activists Harry and Harriette Moore in 1951, the bombing of Fred Shuttlesworth's home in 1956, the bombing of Martin Luther King's home that same year. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 – a city so defined by racial terrorism that it was known as "Bombingham."

And ultimately even the prerequisites for black freedom start to fit the technical definitions: Sherman's march through Atlanta. Nat Turner. John Brown's Raid. Sherman was an early proponent of the concept of "total war," which recognized no battle lines and few civilian zones. His famed march to the sea was designed to both instill fear in the Southern civilian population and to break the will of the Confederate soldiers miles away from their jeopardized homes. Nor are the revolts of Nat Turner and John Brown exempt. The difficult truth is that sometimes the charge of terrorism lies in the eye of the beholder.

None of this is meant to lessen the tragedy of the lives stolen three years ago – it is bad moral mathematics to even weigh any one tragedy against another – but it does raise questions about the current administration's use of the term 'terrorist.' In the midst of a public stricken with post-traumatic stress syndrome and a presidency that has used fear as its primary political tool, we would do well to recall that terror has deep roots in American soil.

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