In a recent commentary, I called alleged 19th-century slave insurrectionist Denmark Vesey a “terrorist,” defining that term as the intentional targeting of civilians to advance an objective or agenda. Vesey, who planned to murder every white person in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, certainly fit this description, and so did President Harry Truman’s dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, a comparison I readily made. Liberals cursed my portrayal of Vesey, while thanking me for bringing up Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Conservatives cursed my portrayal of Truman, yet thanked me for my recent portrayal of Vesey.
Though they are generally thought of as “bleeding hearts,” I’m never surprised when liberals endorse terrorism. Viewing humanity through the lens of class, race, gender, and other collectivist identities, it’s an easy philosophical leap for liberals to justify mass killing in the name of social justice or “progress.”
In the early to mid-20th century, many American and European liberals were so sympathetic to socialism that they turned a blind eye to communist atrocities against Russia’s civilian population. Writes conservative columnist Joseph Sobran, “The vast and cruel tyranny was claiming millions of lives… Civilization itself was being murdered in Russia, with the vociferous approval of free men in the still-civilized countries to the West.”
Modern, white guilt-driven liberals who would never think of sacrificing their own small children for any progressive cause—including abolishing slavery—still champion Vesey’s plans to slaughter every pale-faced child in Charleston. When defending Vesey, liberals aren’t imagining murdered kids, only black liberation–some even making the class- and race-based case that slave masters’ entire families were equally as guilty as the slave masters. Similarly, when it came to Lenin and Stalin’s Russia, mid 20th-century liberals weren’t imagining famine and genocide, only “workers of the world” uniting. In the name of saving “humanity,” the Left is always prepared to sacrifice plenty of actual humans.
And unfortunately, so are many of today’s conservatives. The most common defense of Truman committing what conservative columnist Pat Buchanan calls “terrorism on a colossal scale,” is that it was done to “save American lives.” But was it?
Wrote Admiral William Leahy, chief of staff to both Franklin Roosevelt and Truman, “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…” Douglas MacArthur’s consultant Norman Cousins wrote, “When I asked General MacArthur about the decision to drop the bomb, I was surprised to learn he had not even been consulted. What, I asked, would his advice have been? He replied that he saw no military justification for the dropping of the bomb.” Dwight Eisenhower told Newsweek in 1963, “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” Predicted Leahy, “The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
Barbarians? Dark ages? Destroying women and children as a method of waging war? These descriptions could easily apply to Al-Qaeda. Unfortunately, Leahy is describing the United States government.
Even if Leahy, MacArthur, and Eisenhower were wrong about the use of atomic weapons, describing Truman’s actions as “terrorist” seems to upset conservatives most, because they’ve long subscribed to the popular narrative that it was just conventional warfare. According to mainstream conservative thinking, “state-sponsored terrorism” seems to be only when Arab nations fund terrorist individuals and could never apply to plain, old war. By this logic, neither Hitler nor Stalin were guilty of “terrorizing” civilian populations because their actions were government edicts.
Ironically, this is the right-wing argument against gun control turned on its head–where liberals insist that deadly force is the prerogative of government and conservatives insist the 2nd amendment reserves this right to individual citizens. Using Truman’s actions as an example, conservatives seem to say that terrorism carried out by individuals is always unwarranted, but terrorism carried out by government is warranted—and in fact, isn’t even “terrorism” at all. Is there any other sphere in which conservatives, quite literally, allow their government to get away with such murder?
Reveling in the excesses of government in the form of militarism hasn’t always been stock conservative thinking, and as late as 1959, William F. Buckley’s National Review could editorialize, “The indefensiblility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.”
Regardless, for Left or Right, if the definition of terrorism is not the intentional targeting of civilians to advance an objective or agenda—whether committed by Vesey or Truman or anyone else–then what is it? I’ve yet to hear a better definition, and don’t see how that particular evil ceases to become such depending on who’s doing it.