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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Beldar to Brian Williams: "Revolutionary" ≠ "terrorist"

I belatedly found, via a link from Will Collier, what Will correctly calls NBC News anchor Brian Williams' "rather pompous non-apology apology" for writing and broadcasting last week that "several U.S. presidents were at minimum revolutionaries, and probably were considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England." Mr. Williams' self-defense/non-apology included this assertion:

While I insist that a re-reading of my question will prove that in no way was I calling the framers "terrorists" (for starters, the word did not exist 229 years ago), I regret that anyone thought that after a life spent reading and loving American history, I had suddenly changed my mind about the founders of our nation.

Actually, "for starters" without being way too cute about it, the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" may indeed not have existed 229 years ago, but they certainly did exist well over 200 years ago — and the people and practices those words described in their earliest uses were as ugly then as those people and practices are now:

Terrorism is not simply a modern phenomenon. Rather, the word, along with terrorist, first appears in English in 1795 in reference to the Jacobins of France. They ruled France in what was called the Reign of Terror from 1793-94. By 1798, the term was being applied generally to anyone who attempted to achieve political goals through violence and intimidation.

The word is thought to have been coined by the Jacobins themselves, but the French terrorisme is not recorded until 1798. If the Jacobins did coin it, they are the only ones to have used it self-referentially. The term has always had negative connotations since then.

One of the reasons that the Reign of Terror was indeed recognized at the time to be so terrible was its vivid contrast, both in methods and results, to the experience of the then-very-recent American Revolution that had originally inspired the French Revolution. The Columbia Encyclopedia tells us that the Reign of Terror was

characterized by a wave of executions of presumed enemies of the [French] state. Directed by the Committee of Public Safety, the Revolutionary government’s Terror was essentially a war dictatorship, instituted to rule the country in a national emergency....

Responsibility for the police measures taken during the [Reign of Terror] lay also with the Committee of General Security, which had control over the local committees formed to ferret out treason. The Law of Suspects (Sept. 17, 1793) defined those who could be arrested for "treasonable" activities; it was enforced by the Revolutionary Tribunal. Estimates vary as to the number of victims; thousands were guillotined, and over 200,000 were arrested. Representatives on mission, who were agents sent out by the Committee of Public Safety, had absolute power to enforce the terror, including the establishment of special courts.

The counterrevolutionary uprising in the Vendée (Oct.–Dec., 1793), which was suppressed with a heavy loss of life, and revolts against the Convention in Lyon and several other cities served as a backdrop to the intensification of the terror of Jan.–Mar., 1794. In Nantes mass drownings called noyades claimed at least 3,500 lives. In June, 1794, the Committee of Public Safety introduced a new law, which strengthened the power of the Revolutionary Tribunal; the court could return only verdicts of either acquittal or death. Executions increased greatly.

But Mr. Williams is also wrong about how the British Crown perceived the American revolutionaries. It's true, of course, that some of those fighting for American independence from Britain were rough and violent men. Tory colonists fled, or were sometimes roughly driven, into exile, and there were occasional incidents of violence against civilians by both sides or their sympathizers. The Brits had pioneered these rough practices in and after their own civil wars; no one (and certainly no Irishman) ever called Oliver Cromwell "Mr. Lord Protector Nice Guy"; and a sizeable chunk of the American colonists or their forebears had fled similar and worse practices under the British government. King George III famously accused the American people in general of such "knavery" that Britain might be better off without them, and his 1775 declaration of rebellion specifically accused the American revolutionaries of treason; rebellion; disturbance of the peace; making war against him; and the "obstruction" of, and the "oppression" of those carrying out, "lawful commerce" (that tea party business). But terrorism, by that or any other name? Nope.

Heck, Ben Franklin only broke familial relations with his Tory son, rather than trying to have him beheaded. Patrick Henry's cry was "Give me liberty or give me death!" rather than "Give them all death, the guilty and the innocent alike, slowly and painfully and publicly!" Nathan Hale wasn't quoted as saying, "I regret that I haven't killed thousands of innocent women and children for my country." George Washington was not Guy Fawkes, and although his artillery bombardment (partly directed by Alexander Hamilton) of British fortifications at Yorktown was indeed terrifying, those who marched out with Cornwallis were Redcoats, not civilians. Whatever his other personal failings, Thomas Jefferson had never murdered, raped, and pilaged his way through Canada. James Madison and James Monroe are rather more closely associated with the Bill of Rights than with jihad or fatwa. When John Adams, John Jay, and Ben Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris on America's behalf in 1783 to formally end the war, not one of them had explosive charges strapped around his waist; and his Britannic Majesty's express purpose in joining in that document was not to put a stop to anything remotely akin to "terrorism," but rather "to forget all past misunderstandings and differences that have unhappily interrupted the good correspondence and friendship which [Britain and the United States] mutually wish[ed] to restore, and to establish such a beneficial and satisfactory intercourse between the two countries upon the ground of reciprocal advantages and mutual convenience as may promote and secure to both perpetual peace and harmony."

If indeed Brian Williams' life has, as he claims, been "spent reading and loving American history," he should just have said:

I was badly wrong, and I'm very sorry for it. No U.S. President has ever been a "terrorist" even as that word came to be used shortly after the American Revolution. The British Crown considered the Founding Fathers to be revolutionaries and traitors, but never would have suggested that their primary means of trying to achieve political power was by the systematic and deliberate use of violence and threats of violence against civilians, because that was not even arguably true even from the British Crown's point of view.

While he was at it, he could also have mentioned that Gitmo also isn't the gulag of our times, I suppose.

But as it is, we're left with three possible conclusions, or some combination of them: Mr. Williams is indeed very stupid; or Mr. Williams lacks even a rudimentary understanding of morality and decency, right and wrong; or Mr. Williams was being less than fully truthful when he claimed to be a student of history. "Revolutionary" and "terrorist" are not now, and never have been, synonyms.

Posted by Beldar at 01:10 AM in Global War on Terror, Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Beldar to Brian Williams: "Revolutionary" ≠ "terrorist" and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Brian Williams redux from Media Lies

Tracked on Jul 7, 2005 12:00:33 PM


(1) craig mclaughlin made the following comment | Jul 7, 2005 7:16:18 AM | Permalink


Maybe You need to address your screed to Professor Bainbridge, a man of usually sound judgement, whose post on the Williams kabuffle was a real head scratcher. It featured quotes like this:

"Conor Cruise O'Brien's recent The Long Affair is even more polemic, asserting that the master of Monticello was a bloody-minded ideologue, a latter-day Pol Pot who winked at the horrors of France's Terror and, as a logical consequence of his exaltation of "liberty" above all else, might even have supported the Oklahoma City bombing. (O'Brien makes much of the fact that when arrested, accused bomber Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt inscribed with Jefferson's words: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.")"

I'm not a huge Jefferson fan-- I much prefer James Madison, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. But it seems a bit much to blame Tom Jefferson for Tim McVeigh. I'm pretty sure they never met.

(2) Mark L made the following comment | Jul 7, 2005 4:47:10 PM | Permalink

If I were to bet on which of the three conclusions is true I would put my money on very stupid.


The principle that one should never ascribe to malice what could be more easily ascribed to stupidity combined with the fact that news anchors -- like collies -- are bred more for looks than brains, and that such breeding has a deliterious effect on population intelligence.

(3) dchamil made the following comment | Jul 8, 2005 10:52:29 AM | Permalink

It's the old dilemma, "Are they knaves or fools?" So often now they are both.

(4) The Drill SGT made the following comment | Jul 8, 2005 6:32:21 PM | Permalink

Within the context of the 200 year period 1600-1800, Washington and his associates were free thinking radicals and arguably revolutionaries, not terrorists? NOT. Consider the comparables: Cromwell and the English Civil war? 100 years war, Spanish Inquisition, Italian Wars, Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, the French Revolution, the American revolution. Under any standard, the American was civil and controlled.

Having said that, while Washington's record with regard to the Tories was civil in general, the war on the Frontier was fought under a different standard. The Brits paid Indians to burn settlements and tie down colonists who otherwise would have provided high quality skirmishers to the Army, and Washington apparently may have given orders to burn indian settlements back from the frontier.

(5) The Drill SGT made the following comment | Jul 8, 2005 10:52:55 PM | Permalink

let me correct that to the 30 years war

(6) George made the following comment | Jul 21, 2005 12:09:10 AM | Permalink

You make the point well that revolutionaries in the American colonies were not terrorists, but what about other more recent revolutionaries that have been deemed "terrorists" by oppressive or colonial regimes? What about (for example) South African revolutionaries, all of whom were deemed "terrorists" by the apartheid government?

I think that Brian Williams's point, even though he made it quite poorly, was to say that one nation's "terrorists" are another nation's "freedom fighters." If we march around the globe fighting "terrorists," how can we make sure that we're not marching around the globe wiping out "freedom fighters?"

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