Posted in atomic bombings, imperialism, journal articles, Ku Klux Klan, labor, military, propaganda, terrorism, violence

Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field

Gage, Beverly. “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field.” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73-94.

The “State of the Field” essay that I am addressing is “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field” by Beverly Gage, which appeared in the Journal of American History in 2011.  Gage sets the foundation for her argument by presenting historian Richard Hofstadter’s call in 1970 for historians to “remedy their ‘inattention’ and construct a history of violence that would speak to the present and the past.”[1]  She explains how the historical profession stepped up to the challenged over the course of the next forty years by publishing numerous studies on “racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory,” yet, even though terrorism dominates American political discourse, historians have not effectively confronted the issue.[2]

In the early part of her essay, Gage shows that “terrorism” is difficult to define, although she does claim that terrorism tends to be a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[3]  Throughout the essay, certain examples are repeatedly cited as terrorist acts, such as Klan lynchings and labor violence like the Haymarket riot.

She also discusses political violence and social movements, and historians’ hopes of developing a general theory of terrorism through studying groups such as The Weather Underground and the Irish Republican Army.  But most of all, Gage contends that these historians sought to underscore the “illegitimacy of terrorism as a means of social change, a violation of state sovereignty and moral norms.”[4]  These historians afforded the state exceptional status rather than holding the government to the same moral codes as individuals.

There are many challenges to distinguishing terrorism from other forms of violence, including determining whether formal “states” can be terrorists.[5]  Most specialists agree that the term terrorism needs to be “restricted to nonstate actors—specifically, groups or individuals seeking to challenge existing governments.”[6]  One of the big issues, though, was that the government funded many of the studies, so there seems to be a conflict of interest.  Chomsky and others emphasized the large role the United States government played in exporting a “state-sponsored ‘culture of terrorism.’”[7]  Such actions should not be ignored.

Since 9/11, there has been a boom of studies focused on terrorism.  Yet a primary focus of these studies has been based on a “new terrorism” framework, which Gage connects to sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer’s work.[8]  In this framework, violence is always motivated by religion.  Placing the focus on religious motivations, however, pushes politics out of the discussion.[9]  Isabelle Duyvesteyn states that emphasizing religion tends to obscure the political nature of terrorism.  She offers Timothy McVeigh as an example and remarks: “[he] may have purported to love Christ, but he certainly despised the federal government.”[10]

My project began with my Religious Studies MA thesis, where I explored how Americans think about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  My exploration was guided by Susan Sontag’s question from her book Regarding the Pain of Others: “Which atrocities from the incurable past do we think we are obliged to revisit?”[11]  For my history MA thesis, I continued to explore these themes through a public history digital project.  “Terrorism and the American Experience” was an appropriate “State of the Field” essay for me to consider in light of my project.

I view the atomic bombings of Japan as acts of terrorism, so clearly I do not side with historians who wish to exempt the state from such considerations.  Bombing cities that were heavily populated with civilians aimed to send a very strong message to Japan and the rest of the world and therefore fits Gage’s assessment of terrorism being a “spectacular method of communication aimed at audiences far from the target itself.”[12]  I do not necessarily think that there is anything for me to gain by labeling President Truman or other government officials as terrorists; however, my approach has been to view the evidence from a guilty perspective.  What I mean by this is that I tend to analyze evidence without trying to justify the bombings.

Duyvesteyn’s point about religion is well-taken, but I also feel like religion is not the only lens that can obscure the political nature of terrorism.  Blaming the bombings on the American government’s racist attitudes, as some historians have, also distorts the truth.

I have read two of Jurgensmeyer’s books and a number of books on lynchings, Timothy McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge, abortion clinic bombings, and about museum exhibits and memorials dedicated to these and similar themes.  The most frustrating issue I have found is that few authors (and even fewer public exhibits) seem to address the role American leadership plays in evoking and advocating these acts of terror.  The narratives tend to focus on demonizing the actor without effectively evaluating all of the contributing societal factors.

In her final paragraph, Gage writes, “The historiography of terrorism with its uneasiness about terminology, its political uncertainties, and its fractured discussions, is still struggling to find the proper balance between these imperatives.”[13]  I am not attempting to reach any definite conclusions about the atomic bombings or the definition of terrorism, but I hope that my project might help others in the field think about the issues and relationships in more creative and objective ways.

[1] Beverly Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 98, no. 1 (2011): 73.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 74.

[6] Ibid., 78.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 82.

[9] Ibid., 91.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 93.

[12] Gage, “Terrorism and the American Experience: A State of the Field,” 74.

[13] Ibid., 94.