Freedom fries and chicken hawks: The American history mosque-closers and chest-thumpers must learn

When terror strikes, it's politically profitable to talk tough. It might feel good, but always leads to mistakes

Published November 21, 2015 3:45PM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/J. Scott Applewhite/Brian Snyder/Jason Reed/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/J. Scott Applewhite/Brian Snyder/Jason Reed/Photo montage by Salon)

We’ve been here before. When terror strikes at the heart of a people, the immediate tendency is to talk tough and demand action. It feels good at first, but as often as not, the commitment leads to unnecessary expenditures and unsatisfactory results, not to mention an uptick in racist stereotyping. We’re not just talking about 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In reaction to Pearl Harbor, the U.S. established internment camps for Japanese-Americans. When legal instruments are invoked in this manner, we’re not merely talking about a “backlash”; we’re legalizing racism.

In fact, there was a time, long gone by now, when the radical threat to American peace and social order and national religious life came from France itself. But as recently as 2003, France became something of a symbol of the sort of Western nation that was soft on terror: its government refused to jump on the bandwagon when the Bush-Cheney administration invaded Iraq. Remember freedom fries?

There is more than a little historical irony to report. So, let’s first recall what we owe France. The American War for Independence would have been dead in its tracks had it not received substantial military and economic support from the French, when they could scarcely afford it. Yet barely a decade after the Treaty of Paris secured British recognition of American nationhood, the bloody course of the French Revolution — though it was initially conceived on American principles — drove the U.S. government to turn on its most reliable friend. After 1793, when the deposed King Louis XVI was guillotined, the French were generalized as “cannibals”; radical French ideas were believed so dangerous to America that words on the page would be enough to foment unrest and upset the social order.

When Thomas Paine, the spirited propagandist of 1776, defended the French Revolution in his pamphlet “The Rights of Man” (1791), the emerging Federalist Party in America saw the tract as a defense of “mob justice” or “mobocracy.” Paine’s next, “The Age of Reason” (1794) questioned biblical authority and in the starkest terms demeaned organized Christianity. By the mid-1790s, the adjective “French” became virtually synonymous with “anarchist.” The pro-French political party that would shortly be known as Democratic-Republican, led by Madison and Jefferson, were dubbed “Jacobins” by their Federalist opponents, after the short-lived party in France that had brought on “the Terror.” The Federalists talked tough, in large part as a means to label Democratic-Republicans as soft on French extremism. You can see where this is going, right?

The most militant critic of Revolutionary France was Alexander Hamilton.

For him, honor was everything. Personal honor, national honor — he sometimes conflated the two. During John Adams’s presidency, representatives of the French Foreign Ministry snubbed three American envoys, and hardcore Federalists were convinced that the French government would shortly invade the United States. Hamilton regarded the issue as a matter of honor — the loss of national honor would be, in his precise words, “political suicide.” So, he proposed adding 50,000 men to the U.S. Army (with himself at the head, of course), and the U.S. and France engaged in what became known as the “Quasi-War.” It was a case of extreme overreaction. No French troops ever set foot on American soil; no acts of violence against a passive citizenry occurred because of the alleged French menace. But the Quasi-War raised Hamilton’s profile, which had been sagging somewhat.

Nevertheless, French emigrés to America continued to be targeted in 1798-99 by those who feared their influence, those who spread fear, while the power of the military in national life increased. Hamilton wanted non-citizens of French origin to be deported. More tough talk ensued, and Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made it a crime, punishable by fine and imprisonment, for an American citizen to write critically of the president or insult an officer of the federal government. Newspaper editors and others were tried, found guilty, and jailed for their “French principles.”

National honor was twisted in other ways. The War of 1812 was declared over ostensible British insults to American honor, when merchant vessels were boarded by the Royal Navy and U.S. commerce disrupted. Congress’s reaction was to invade Canada, where British agents sat poised to incite western Indians to launch renewed attacks within the United States. A defensive war to redress grievances and buttress a sense of national pride quickly turned into a war to acquire millions more acres of North America. Though government borrowed heavily, the war was fought to a standstill: no territory was exchanged, and the White House and U.S. Capitol were torched in the process of reclaiming a few grams of lost honor.

Okay, that was then, and not every lesson of history is entirely translatable to the present. Orchestrated terror is truly horrific. The French are attacking ISIS from the air in revenge for last week’s tragedy, and because we feel so deeply the Parisians’ pain, we understand and approve — without as yet knowing whether enough of the right bad guys are being blown up to justify the deaths of any innocents who might be caught in the crossfire. Perhaps such compromises of principle are to be expected when a center of civilization is terrorized. Who rightfully gets to pass judgment? But in the U.S., the reaction seems to be the same as it was at the time of the Ebola outbreak: some Syrian refugee, somewhere in the bunch, may be a Manchurian candidate, just ten years away from blowing up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Oh, wait. That was a citizen, a Persian Gulf War veteran, who did that. Anyway, Paris may actually give some greater justification, in fearful minds, to candidate Trump’s ridiculous wall and the related deportation mania.

The GOP candidates who fan the flames of intolerance whenever something like Paris occurs are doing nothing more than amplifying the hatred that naturally arises at such moments. Some who listen to these voices will be convinced that shutting down mosques or closing our borders will stop terror. But it won’t, of course, any more than duct-taped windows would have saved anyone from the chemical attack that didn’t happen after 9/11. No one wants to feel unsafe; but that doesn’t mean that the initial impulse at a time of crisis is going to be the optimal solution to a complex, long-term problem.

President Obama may be criticized for his penchant for diplomacy and his lack of tough talk, but he proceeds always with eyes open. He may be remembered as an imperfect president, but also a prudent one. General Colin Powell had seen enough of war to want to avoid it in 2003, and was the voice of reason who, as secretary of state, was overruled — and remained loyal to the administration. We forget the rhetoric of democracy’s infectious virtue that drove “manifest destiny” as practiced by President Polk during the war with Mexico; Jeb Bush would prefer that we forget how it was re-engaged by Bush-Cheney in underestimating the scope of an Iraq invasion. But we haven’t yet forgotten General Powell’s prudence either.

In the old days, a “Hamiltonian moment,” such as that which took us to war in 1812 and again in 1846, was accompanied by the enlistments of noteworthy political men. Congressmen entered the lists against the enemy they’d identified in their public speeches. George Washington was the first to sign up in 1775, and saw plenty of combat. Former Virginia governor James Monroe ached to put on a uniform during the War of 1812, even in his civilian role as President Madison’s secretary of state. Morgan Lewis had been governor of New York, and Andrew Jackson had been a member of both the House and Senate, prior to becoming generals during that war. Abraham Lincoln’s political mentor, Illinois congressman John J. Hardin, joined the fight in Mexico, and forfeited his life in battle, martyred in a questionable cause. And of course, Theodore Roosevelt, an architect of the Spanish-American War, left his comfortable post in Washington to lead troops up San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1898.

Other than John McCain, whose interventionist position may be contested but whose knowledge of war cannot be, the tough talkers who are not war veterans do not possess the resolve of Washington, Monroe, Hardin or Roosevelt, who backed up their aggressive statements with a personal commitment to head for the front. Battlefield courage was never shown by warmongers Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney, nor will it be by tough talkers Cruz, Trump, Rubio, Huckabee et al.

Be wary of what arises from tough talk. We also need to be reminded that the justifications given for war have the strong tendency to promote racism. In both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Native Americans and African-American slaves were made more killable than usual when some of them joined the British side. That’s all it took to ramp up the rhetoric against “inferior” races whose proximity gave white folks pause.

It will surprise no one that the racist reaction to perceived instability abroad has its own long history. To return to 1793, and the raging French Revolution, slaves in the colony of Haiti (then called St. Domingue) took seriously “liberté” and “égalité,” rose up and were pronounced free. Amid this confusion, the minority white planters fled the island for America, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson refused to provide government assistance to the refugees because of their past royalist/aristocratic affiliation and the Virginia legislature, fearing the mobility of former slaves, decreed that free blacks could not set foot in the state. Jefferson himself wrote to James Monroe that, with a Caribbean “in the hands of people of color,” America “should foresee the bloody scenes which our children, and possibly ourselves have to wade through.” He literally envisioned a devastating race war in the United States. The succeeding generation, fighting in Mexico in 1846-48, similarly decried the “mongrel” population of brown-skinned people south of the newly reconstituted border, a people tainted by their Catholicism. By incorporating too much of the Southwest, the ensuing racial imbalance would infect real American blood.

Why was Texas annexed in 1845? Partly as payback for the insult to American honor symbolized by the well-remembered Alamo assault. On the eve of war with Mexico, former treasury secretary Levi Woodbury was harking back to 1836 when he recalled that “Saxon blood had been humiliated and enslaved to Moors, Indians and mongrels.” At the same time, future president James Buchanan dismissed the “imbecile and indolent Mexican race” when he recommended a war of conquest, and said that no white American should ever be under the thumb of a lesser race.

Examples abound that show how fear of what lies in the mind of an unknown person or tribe results in dire assumptions, widespread antagonism and heightened propaganda. Those who held slaves (and many who didn’t) assumed that all dark-skinned people harbored ill intent. Jefferson, ingenious in other ways, could not imagine a different world than one in which racial conflict was a conquering force beyond human agency.

These past actors were the victims of a fractured ideology, many unaware that genuine self-defense and cries of national honor are not the same thing. Chest-thumping does nothing to restore injured honor. Hyperbolic language only encourages hate. Yet the old ideology has not been entirely destroyed — it can be resurrected in desperate times.

Sadly, today’s GOP is little different from their warmongering predecessors in this regard. Wall out bad Mexicans. Quarantine the asymptomatic who may have been exposed to the African disease Ebola. When the media feasts on grisly sensationalism, it unfortunately redounds to the advantage of a certain breed of politician.

To caution against overreaction is not to oppose an appropriate reaction. Fourteen years ago, knowing the location of Osama Bin Laden and his supporters in Afghanistan made the attack on Tora Bora and related military actions a rational response to the 9/11 attacks. There is a time for vengeance. It feels right. But as we have learned since 2001, the full force of the U.S. military is not needed over the long haul (major side effect: it breeds resentment), if the goal is to pinpoint individual terror cells and stop them before it’s too late.

In macro-historical terms, the presence of U.S. forces in the Islamic world will never win enough hearts and minds to extinguish the anti-Western idea as intended. We may regard our mission as humane, we may be well-intentioned occupiers; but we are occupiers nonetheless. The resentful point at us as aggressors; those most dominated by an insidious ideology are turned into terrorists. Jeb Bush now says U.S. ground troops should be fighting ISIS in Syria. More tough talk. But how is that to remove the danger to Paris or New York or anywhere else? ISIS is not confined within Syria’s borders.

Republican candidates beat the drum of war. It’s what they do. But are they capitalizing on the moment to defeat a defeatable enemy, or capitalizing on fear to appear “stronger” than the deliberative leader in the White House or any other reasoning Democrat?

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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