Those serious about fighting a “war on terror” might want to start in Charleston, South Carolina, where plans have been made to erect a statue honoring terrorist Denmark Vesey.
Few people are happy any time I discuss what constitutes “terrorism” because I have a very simple definition of the term—the targeting of innocent civilians to advance an agenda or objective. Obvious terrorists al-Qaeda targeted the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the White House in 2001, killing thousands of innocent civilians for their own political objectives. In 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan intentionally killing thousands of civilians, also for political objectives. Writes columnist Pat Buchanan “if terrorism is the massacre of innocents to break the will of rulers, were not Hiroshima and Nagasaki terrorism on a colossal scale?”
Like Osama bin Laden and Harry Truman, free black man Denmark Vesey made his own large scale terrorist plans in 1822 when he attempted to organize a slave rebellion hoping to kill enough white people to take over Charleston. Vesey and 34 fellow conspirators were hanged for their alleged plot. Writing for The Atlantic Monthly in June of 1861, abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson noted that “Denmark Vesey was known to be for a war of immediate and total extermination; and when some of the company opposed killing ‘the ministers and the women and children,’ Vesey read from the Scriptures that all should be cut off, and said that ‘it was for their safety not to leave one white skin alive.”
Despite his blood lust, Vesey remains a hero to civil rights activists, Charleston mayor Joe Riley, and others who believe his motives were justified, given the horrors of slavery. Said Riley of Vesey’s legend, “We tell these untold stories so the truth will set us free.” In Vesey’s admirers’ defense, bin Laden is also seen as a freedom fighter by many in the Islamic world, who on 9/11 was simply avenging the deaths of thousands of Muslim civilians killed through U.S. sanctions and war. Similarly, many Americans believe Truman’s dropping of the atomic bomb was the work of a heroic statesman whose actions were ultimately worth it to “save American lives.”
For argument’s sake, let’s say each of these examples is true—Vesey was defending slaves’ lives, bin Laden was defending Muslim lives, and Truman defended American lives. Each still killed, or attempted to kill, innocent third parties to achieve their respective goals. This is the very definition of terrorism, however inconvenient or uncomfortable it is for some to admit.
This is not to say one cannot understand Vesey’s motives or that of any terrorist. During a 2007 Republican presidential primary debate, when candidate, Texas Congressman Ron Paul explained how constant US military intervention in the Middle East makes terrorists want to attack us, a phenomenon the CIA calls “blowback,” candidate and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani angrily demanded an apology from Paul, saying “That’s really an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we ‘invited’ the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11. I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn’t really mean that.” Unfazed by Giuliani’s melodrama, Paul responded “I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach about ‘blowback’… they don’t come here to attack us because we’re rich and we’re free, they attack us because we’re over there.”
Many blacks living in Charleston in the early 19th century, free or slave, were no doubt terrorized by their white masters or neighbors on a regular basis. Slave rebellion, like that planned by Vesey, was a constant fear amongst the white population. But why? Did perhaps Southern whites have some sense that their relationship with the black population was oppressive enough that it might cause an uprising? Was there good reason for white Charlestonians living in the early 19th century to constantly fear “blowback” in the form of slave insurrection?
Understanding terrorism is not to condone it, a point lost on Rudy Giuliani when made by Ron Paul concerning al-Qaeda, and a point lost in the debate concerning Vesey’s legacy. Does anybody doubt that Truman would have been charged with war crimes if Japan had been victorious after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The Japanese were tried after World War II for their own terrorist war crimes and rightfully so. Does anyone believe Bin Laden should not answer for his crimes or that Vesey should not have been hung for his planned terrorist deeds?
According to the abolitionist Higginson, Vesey’s fellow conspirators had serious qualms about the killing of “the ministers and the women and children” which tells us that even in the midst of slavery-ridden Charleston in 1822, some oppressed blacks rightly recognized the evil of terrorism. Erecting a statue to honor Vesey is admitting that terrorism is sometimes justified, depending on the cause. But for civilized people, terrorism should never be justified—and neither should Denmark Vesey.