VIOLENT RESISTANCE has reached a new high in Iraq. With combatants and civilians added together, the death toll exceeded 100 lives in 24 hours the other day. For many Americans, this latest spike in violence is confusing.
Of course, the immediate cause is the transfer of power in Baghdad, from a U.S.-led occupation to interim Iraqi rule. In the papers, on the television, from the White House steps, we are now being told to expect what we are seeing: unprecedented wholesale violence in response to radical social change. Occupation spokespeople characterize these acts as last-ditch efforts to destabilize an inevitable transformation. Al-Qaida terrorists, loyal Saddamists, and Iraqi resistance militias – each for their own reasons – promise more violence to come.
Knowing the immediate cause of the uproar doesn’t hurt, nor does it shed much light or understanding. The playing field is historically and culturally complex, and the political spin on each event whether, placed by CNN or AlJazeera, is enough to baffle Houdini. No wonder many people feel confused.
Americans might look to their past to shed some light on the expanding violence in Iraq. After all, we have quite a backlog of experience with the more extreme forms of political resistance. To take one example, try viewing the reconstruction of Iraq in light of the Reconstruction Period (1866-1877) following America’s Civil War, when Union forces and an unwanted Federal government occupied the defeated American South for eleven years.
Without much strain it seems safe to say that, in both cases, a somewhat rigid and bumbling occupying power enraged a deeply humiliated population, with shocking results. In America all across the White South, resentment and resistance ruled the day in ways that resemble current events throughout Iraq. The tone of the next decade was set very early when, on the heels of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a self-styled freedom fighter, John Wilkes Booth, whose battle cry as he pulled the trigger was Sic Semper Tyrannis – Thus Always to Tyrants. Lincoln’s crime, for Booth and many others, lay in trying to coerce unity on a fiercely independent south. Does this sound familiar?
America’s first widely successful terrorist group was born of the same post-Civil War conflict With its fiery start in 1867, local Ru Klux Rlan cells raged across the war-torn South, employing violence to destabilize Reconstruction governments and launching a reign of terror that included countless killings, hangings, shootings, lashings, rapes, acid brandings, and castrations. Like more than one group in Iraq today, the Ku Klux Klan employed religious symbols, (including burning crosses and Bible verses), to justify their actions and attract adherents. The Klan was not alone in this. There were the Knights of the White Camellia and many others. They established a trend that would last for generations.
Jesse James of Hollywood fame became active during Reconstruction too, carrying out a 16year spate of bank, train, and mail coach robberies along the Kansas-Missouri border between 1866 and 1882. We think of them today as folk bandits; in fact, Jesse and Frank, the brothers James, were equally dedicated to lives of crime and political resistance. They acquired their hatred of Federal authority as Confederate mercenaries fighting during the Civil War alongside the Southern guerrilla leader, William Quantrill. In one of “Quantrill’s Raiders” many actions, Jesse James helped massacre 75 unarmed Union soldiers at a railroad station in Centraba, Missouri. After the war, in the words of American criminologist Mark Hamm, the James brothers “became political activists dedicated to overthrowing the government by systematically stealing its most precious resource: money.”
Once very late in their career, a reporter asked Jesse to explain his gang’s behavior. He said, “We were driven to it.” Among southern loyalists, James was viewed as a Robin Hood figure. Whether the James Gang gave a dime to the poor is irrelevant. “People thought they did,” Hamm writes, “and thus accorded them the status of folk heroes.”
We were driven to it. God is on our side. Do phrases like these ring any bells for contemporary watchers of Iraq?
Of course, “rebuilding” the American South and rebuilding Iraq are very different projects. For one thing, a relatively simple state of affairs prevailed in the American 1860s: the country was divided into two parts. In Iraq, the country is split up at least three ways geographically, and three ways religiously as well (Sunni, Shi’a, and secular: Iraq is the most secular of Arab nations). That’s six divisions, and these are only the Big Ones.
Again, the south had Lee and the north had Lincoln. It was a God-awful, bloody war, but there was no absence of moral stature or good manners. In Iraq, it isn’t yet clear where the intelligence and moral high ground lie. Il can hardly be said to lie with George Bush and Paul Bremer.
The British invented Iraq 80 years ago at a treaty table in Versailles. They installed a king, and instructed Harry St. John Philby to run the place and keep the books. There were Iraqis alive then as small children who are still living in Iraq today. Iraq has enough of its own history to shed light on present experience for its people.
We Americans have a history, too. It includes the several unpleasant similarities between AlQaida and the Ku Klux Klan and, in a later chapter, our own present-day terrorist underground distantly modeled on Jesse James, the late, still popular Tim McVeigh presiding.