Thursday, April 24, 2014
Ancient Robbers, Modern Terrorists, and Harry Reid
Cross posted from Arsenal of Venice
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made national news by calling Cliven Bundy and his supporters domestic terrorists. As a resident of Las Vegas I’m not surprised that Harry Reid would say something like that. Because of my research into revolutionary warfare, I’m even less surprised that words like “terrorists” are used as tools to delegitimize opponents.
My research examined the period in Europe during the Late Roman Empire, as well as the Chinese period of disunion during the same time frame. In both periods I found that the use of the term robber connoted specific differences in power between the central government and the perceived illegitimacy of new actors. What was most interesting is that the new powers were often a mix of local officials with private soldiers that gained autonomy in the chaos, invading barbarians that were alternatively courted and opposed by the government and often given official titles, protective groups of war bands, and some old fashioned predatory robbers that fit the traditional idea behind the term. But as they say, history is often written by the winner, and in these cases, history was written by those in traditional power centers. So despite most of the “robbers” having at least some form of legitimacy they were still labelled with the dismissive and often inaccurate term.
We see the potency of words today as well. Policy makers debated over whether to call anti-American forces in Iraq “insurgents” or “terrorists.” Many Americans felt a great deal of frustration when the sectarian conflict in Iraq was labeled the demoralizing term “civil war.” It explains why the surge led by General Petraeus was labeled an escalation by some critics who were trying to invoke the ghoul of Vietnam. A blockade during the Cuban Missile crisis would have been an act of war, but a quarantine of the island prescribed the same action without the accompanying baggage.
In the prelude to the Bosnia deployment, critics argued that the hatred was generations deep. It even dated back to the Battle of Kosovo or Mohacs and bubbled from the bottom up uncontrollably. Supporters pointed to the top-down nature of organized violence and the efficacy of intervention. Again, the language itself was used to either discourage or encourage intervention. But each side avoided the term “genocide” to evade the treaty obligations associated with it. Thus policy makers use the rose-by-any-other-name term “ethnic cleansing” instead.
So when Harry Reid calls Cliven Bundy and his supports domestic terrorists it says a great deal about what Harry Reid thinks about them, but also about his tactics. When you see somebody use a loaded word like terrorist or thug, it shows an attempt to cause an emotional response to delegitimize an opponent. And that is an ancient practice.