Lord Acton asserted, “The recent past contains the key to the present time. All forms of thought that influence it come before us in their turn; we have to describe the ruling currents, to interpret the sovereign forces that still govern and divide the world.” So, let us go there.
The American Bill of Rights begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today’s policy debates raise concerns about the threat of terrorism in America and elsewhere.
Terrorism means, “The use of violence and intimidation committed for a political purpose.” It has manifested different forms over time. UCLA Professor Emeritus David Rapoport, a terrorism expert, has identified four waves. The first involved anarchists using assassinations to advance nationalistic and political independence agendas. Next, the “anticolonial wave” driven by nationalistic goals with guerilla fighting as a central means. The third wave was defined by hostage taking and plane hijackings to maintain or gain political independence. The fourth, which Rapaport calls “the religious wave,” uses suicide attacks for political aims. Even with the current threat of ISIS, the purported reason is to create a new political state.
As policymakers decide how to protect American interests as well as basic human rights, we must be proactive. Both terrorism and religion must be viewed through a larger historical lens.
We need not tarry long upon the Spanish Inquisition or recall how similar sentiments drifted across the Atlantic during the Salem witch trials beginning in 1692. Conducted in the name of religion, 19 people died and hundreds more imprisoned.
A reading of Twelve Years a Slave or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass illuminates how religion was used to justify slavery as morally right, just as it fueled the campaign for abolition.
Three months after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, prompting a group’s internment based on national origin, rather than religion. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that in Korematsu v. United States, deciding, “Like curfew, exclusion of those of Japanese origin was deemed necessary because of the presence of an unascertained number of disloyal members of the group, most of whom we have no doubt were loyal to this country.”
Looking abroad as Yugoslavia crumbled in the Nineties, political boundaries were predetermined by residents’ identities. If any Roman Catholic Croats remained in Serbia, Orthodox Christian Serbs in Croatia or Muslim Bosnians in either, then they faced ethnic cleansing.
Today, we coexist in a society with others who will inevitably hold different beliefs. Yet we still live in a country defined and united by enduring ideas, including those aforementioned 16 words that have headlined the Bill of Rights since its ratification in 1791.
The shared idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people forms the very core of America. We must repel terror with reason, not fear. Whatever policymakers choose to do, it is only by being true to deeper principles that a national psyche can prevail.
Submitted by Jason Bowns