Tag Archives: Easter Rebellion

Terrorism: Then and Now

Terrorism: Then & Now

Dispatches From The Edge

March 28, 2016

 

The year 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rebellion. Throughout the year I will try to revisit some of the lessons of Ireland’s struggle for freedom.

 

Bombs explode in a subway. The victims are everyday people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. What follows is outrage: track down the perpetuators. The people who set off the bombs are monsters and inhuman fanatics, thunder the authorities.

 

But the year is not 2016, it is 1883 during the “Dynamite War” waged by mainly Irish-American members of the Fenians against the English occupation of Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in 1848. The “War” targeted the underground, train stations, city halls, public plazas, and factories in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. The war spanned four years, and in the light of the current terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe, it is an instructive comparison.

 

On one level there is no similarity. The “Dynamite War” killed and injured very few people, while terrorist attacks and bombs in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, France and Belgium have murdered hundreds and wounded thousands. It is also hard to compare John Devoy and Patrick Tynan of the Fenians to the likes of the Islamic State’s Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Muslim al-Turkmani.

 

Yet there is an historical lesson here, and we ignore it at our peril. Terrorism is a difficult subject to talk about because anything other than outrage seems like one is making an excuse for unspeakably heinous acts. And yet if we are to seriously look for solutions, that requires asking “why,” even if the answers are uncomfortable.

 

There are certainly easy “solutions” out there: occupy Muslim communities and torture suspects we arrest. Unleash yet more drones, carpet bomb the bastards, and, if necessary, send in the Marines. But that is exactly what we have doing for the past three decades, and is there anyone who would seriously argue that things are better now than they were in 1981?

 

Did the invasion of Afghanistan muzzle terrorism? A decade and a half later, we are still at war in that poor benighted country, and the terrorism that we experienced on 9/11 has spread to Madrid, Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Cairo, Brussels, Damascus, Baghdad, and other cities. We sowed the wind in Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria. Did we expect to reap less than a whirlwind?

 

In his book “Blowback,” the late Chalmers Johnson chronicled the ricochets from American foreign policy. We raised up the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan to defeat the Russians and helped create Osama bin Laden. We ally ourselves with Saudi Arabia, the country that supplied most of the people who flew those airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, whose reactionary brand of Islam has helped create an army of jihadists worldwide.

 

The flood of refugees headed toward Europe is a roadmap of U.S. interventions in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Libya. In the case of the latter, we created a failed state, whose massive arms caches has succeeded in destabilizing significant parts of Central Africa.

 

The nature of American foreign policy—as well as those of some of its allies—is where the conversation of what to do about terrorism has to begin. This is not to excuse terrorism, but to try to understand what it emerges from, instead of playing an endless—and eventually futile—game of whack-a-mole.

 

For people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz the answer is simple: terrorists are evil Muslims (although sometimes just being a Muslim is enough). But how many of our leaders ask, “Why are they doing this” and are really interested in an answer? Hillary Clinton says she doesn’t think we should torture people, but she is all for bombing the bejesus out of them and overthrowing their governments. Bernie Sanders is much more sensible, but even he voted for the Yugoslav War, which set off NATO’s eastward march and led to the current crisis over the Ukraine.

 

Terrorism is not a thing you can wage war against, it is a tactic employed by the less powerful against the more powerful. If you can’t defeat someone’s armies you can always blow up their citizens. Simply using military power in response to terrorism is the most efficient way to recruit new terrorists. Drone strikes are supposed to be “surgical” weapons that only kill bad guys. But as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has found, drones have killed thousands of civilians. Each of those civilians has a family, and each of those family (clan, tribe, etc.) members is now a potential recruit. The drone war is a perfect example of Johnson’s “blowback.”

 

Of course, terrorism generates its own “blowbacks.” The “Dynamite War” didn’t do much damage to the British, but it was a political catastrophe for the Irish. The English used it—along with the infamous 1882 Phoenix Park murders of the colonial authority’s chief secretaries—to pass the “Perpetual Coercion Act” and imprison hundreds of Irish activists. The loss of those leaders seriously damaged efforts by the Land League to stop a wave of tenant farmer evictions that followed in the wake of the 1878-79 crop failures.

 

Those evictions produced a “blowback” of their own. Tens of thousands of Irish were forced to emigrate to America, bringing with them a deep rage at English landlords and the colonial authorities. That fury fed the anger that many Irish-Americans still held against the British, and that led to a revival of the Fenians and the launching of the “Dynamite War.” It was good old American know how that built the bombs that blew up targets in England.

 

The “War” was actually similar to the current wave of terrorism, at least in conception. Rather than going after the English armed forces and police, most the bombs were set in public places with the explicit idea of terrorizing everyday life. The plan was to transplant the violence of the colonial occupation to the home country. It did, indeed, scare people, including many English who formerly favored the Irish cause, and turned those who were indifferent anti-Irish. It derailed the Home Rule movement for several decades.

 

The Colonial authorities responded with yet greater repression, much as many of the current candidates for the White House would if given a chance. But while the “Dynamite War” was ill conceived and counter productive, it was a reflection of the basic injustice of colonialism. The Islamic State is a genuine monstrosity, but it reflects a hundred years of European and American manipulation of the Middle East’s resources and politics. When Britain and France divided up the Middle East to their liking in 1916—deliberately building in ethnic, tribal and religious instability—did they really think there would never be a day of reckoning?

 

There are monsters in the Middle East, but we have helped create them. The question is, can we stop them?

 

We should know by now that more bombs and troops do exactly the opposite. To seriously tackle terrorism will take a fundamental re-examination of U.S. foreign policy. It must start with challenging the idea that everything about this country is the “best,” the ideology of “American exceptionalism” that underlies so much of our strategic policies. That idea of “exceptionalism” gives us the right to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs, to subvert their political structures, and, if necessary, seek regime change.

 

We preach “democracy” to Cuba, China and Russia, while being perfectly comfortable with Saudi Arabia and the other autocratic monarchies that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. People take note of that contradiction and quite logically assume that it is hypocrisy and has more to do with our “interests” than any commitment to the right of people to choose how to run their own lives.

 

In any case our own political system increasingly looks like some grotesque caricature of democracy, where presidential candidates blithely propose ignoring the Constitution and violating international law, and where a handful of billionaires can dominate the public space.

 

We are the most powerful economic and military force on the planet, so overthrowing a government or strangling its economy is not all that hard to do. At least in the short run. But the world is simply far too complex to fit into one model of government or worldview and, sooner or later, people will dig in their heels.

 

How we respond to that resistance is what we need to examine. If the response is force, we can hardly complain when we find ourselves the target of “asymmetrical violence”—terrorism.

 

The people who set the bombs have to be caught and punished, but that will not end the problem. The Irish who murdered the colonial secretaries in Phoenix Park were caught and punished, but it did not make Ireland a calm place or end Irish resistance to the English occupation. That was resolved when the British finally realized that they could no longer determine the history of another country. We must do the same. And that will take a conversation that we have not yet had. It’s time to start.

 

—30—

 

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Terrible Beauty: Ireland’s Easter Rebellion

A Terrible Beauty: The 1916 Easter Rebellion

Dispatches From The Edge

March 22, 2016

 

“Poblacht na hEireann”: The speaker of these words, standing on the front steps of Dublin’s General Post Office and reading from a proclamation, the ink was barely dry, of the “provisional government of the Irish Republic” was the poet Padraig Pearse. It was just after noon on April 24, 1916, the opening scene in a drama that would mix tragedy and triumph, the twin heralds of Irish history.

 

It is a hundred years since some 750 men and women threw up barricades and seized strong points in downtown Dublin. They would be joined by maybe a 1,000 more. In six days it would be over, the post office in flames, the streets blackened by shell fire, and the rebellion’s leaders on their way to face firing squads against the walls of Kilmainham Jail.

 

And yet the failure of the Easter Rebellion would eventually become one of the most important events in Irish history, a “failure” that would reverberate worldwide and be mirrored by colonial uprisings almost a half-century later.

 

Anniversaries—particularly centennials—are equal parts myth and memory, and drawing lessons from them is always a tricky business. And, while 1916 is not 2016, there are parallels, pieces of the story that overlap and dovetail in the Europe of then with the Europe of today.

 

Europe in 1916 was a world at war. The “lamps,” as the expression goes, had gone out in August 1914, and the continent was wrapped in barbed wire and steeped in almost inconceivable death. Shortly after the last Irish rebel was shot, the British launched the battle of the Somme. More than 20,000 would die in the first hour of that battle, and, by the end, there would be more than a million casualties on both sides.

 

Europe is still at war, in some ways influenced by the footsteps of a colonial world supposedly long gone. Britain is fighting its fourth war in Afghanistan. Italian Special Forces are stalking Islamists in Libya. French warplanes are bombing their old stomping grounds in Syria and chasing down Tuaregs in Mali.

 

And Europe is also at war with itself. Barbed wire is once again being unrolled, not to make killing zones out of the no man’s land between trenches, but to block the floods of refugees generated by European—and American—armies and proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Syria.

 

In many ways, the colonial chickens are coming home to roost. The British and French between them secretly sliced up the Middle East in 1916, using religion and ethnicity to divide and conquer the region. Instability was built in. Indeed, that was the whole idea. There would never be enough Frenchmen or Englishmen to rule the Levant, but with Shiites, Sunnis and Christians busily trying to tear out one another’s throats, they wouldn’t notice the well dressed bankers on the sidelines—“tut tutting” the lack of civilized behavior and counting their money.

 

The Irish of 1916 understood that gambit, after all, they were its first victims.

 

Ireland was a colony long before the great powers divided up the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the strategies that kept the island poor, backward and profitable were transplanted elsewhere. Religious divisions kept India largely docile. Tribal and religious divisions made it possible to rule Nigeria. Ethnic conflict short-circuited resistance in Kenya and South Africa. Division by sect worked well in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

 

For Ireland was the great laboratory of colonialism where the English experimented with ways to keep a grip over the population. Culture, religion, language and kinship were all grist for the mill. And when all else failed, Ireland was a short sail across the Irish Sea: kill all the lab rats and start anew.

 

The fact that the English had been in Ireland for 747 years by 1916 was relevant. The Irish call the occupation “the long sorrow,” and it had made them a bit bonkers. Picking a fight in the middle of a war with one of the most powerful empires in human history doesn’t seem like a terribly rational thing to do (and, in truth, there were many Irish who agreed that it was a doomed endeavor.).

 

The European left denounced the Easter rising, mostly because they couldn’t make much sense of it. What was a disciplined Marxist intellectual and trade union leader like James Connolly doing taking up arms with mystic nationalists like Padraig Pearse and Joseph Mary Plunkett? One of the few radicals to get it was V.I. Lenin, who called criticism of the rebellion “monstrously pedantic.”

 

What both Connolly and Lenin understood was that the uprising reflected a society profoundly distorted by colonialism. Unlike in the rest of Europe, in Ireland different classes and viewpoints could find common ground precisely because they had one similar experience: no matter what their education, no matter what their resources, in the end they were Irish, and treated in everyway as inferior by their overlords.

 

Most of the European left was suspicious of nationalism in general because it blurred the lines between oppressed and oppressors and undermined the analysis that class was the great fault line. But as the world would discover a half-century later, nationalism was an ideology that united the many against the few. In the end, it would create its own problems and raise up its own monsters, but for the vast majority of the colonial world it was an essential ingredient of national liberation.

 

The Easter rebellion was not the first anti-colonial uprising. The American threw off the English in 1783; the Greeks drove out the Turks in 1832. India’s great Sepoy rebellion almost succeeded in driving the British out of the sub-continent in 1857. There were others as well.

 

But there was a special drama to the idea of a revolution in the heart of an empire, and it was the drama more than the act that drew the world’s attention. The Times of London blamed the Easter rising for the 1919 unrest in India, where the British Army massacred 380 Sikh civilians at Amristsan. How the Irish were responsible for this, the Times never bothered to explain.

 

But the Irish saw the connection, if somewhat differently than did the Times. Roger Casement, a leader of the 1916 rebellion who was executed for treason in August of that year, said that the cause of Ireland was also the cause of India, because the Easter rebels were fighting “to join again the free civilizations of the earth.”

 

As a rising it was a failure, in part because the entire affair was carried out in secret. Probably no more than a dozen or so people knew that it was going to happen. When the Irish Volunteer Force and the Irish Citizens Army marched up to the Post Office, most of the passersby—including the English ones—thought it was just the “boys” out having a little fun by provoking the authorities again.

 

But secrets don’t make for successful revolutions. The plotters imagined that their example would fire the whole of Ireland, but by the time most the Irish had found out about it, it was over. It was not even an overly bloody affair. There were about 3,000 casualties and 485 deaths, many of them civilians. Of the combatants, the British lost 151, the rebels 83, including the 16 executed in the coming weeks. It devastated a square mile of downtown Dublin, and, when the British troops marched the rebels through the streets after their surrender, crowds spit on the rebels.

 

But as the firing squads did their work day after day, the sentiment began to shift. Connolly was so badly wounded he could not stand, so they tied him to a chair and shot him. The authorities also refused to release the executed leaders to their families, burying them in quicklime instead. Some 3,439 men and 79 women were arrested and imprisoned. Almost 2,000 were sent to internment camps, and 98 were given death sentences. Another 100 received long prison sentences.

 

All of this did not go down well with the public, and the authorities were forced to call off more executions. Plus, the idea of an “Irish Republic” was not going to go away, no matter how many people were shot, hanged or imprisoned.

 

The Easter rising was certainly an awkward affair. Pearse called it a “blood sacrifice,” which makes the rebellion sound uncomfortably close to the Catholic Church’s motto that “The blood of the martyrs is the seat of the church.” And, yet, that is the nature of things like the Easter rising. 1916 churned up all of the ideologies, divisions, and prejudices that colonialism had crafted over hundreds of years, making for some very odd bedfellows. Those who dreamed of re-constituting the ancient kingdom of Meath manned barricades with students of Karl Marx. Illiterate tenant farmers took up arms with Countess Markievicz, who counseled women to “leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”

 

Some of those divisions have not gone away. There will be at least two celebrations of the Easter rising. The establishment parties—Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and the Labour Party—have organized events leading up to the main commemoration March 27. Sinn Fein, representing the bulk of the Irish left, will have its own celebration. There are several small splinter groups that will present their own particular story of the Easter rising.

 

And if you want to be part of it, you can go on the Internet and buy a “genuine” Easter Rebellion T-shirt from “Eire Apparent.”

Everything is for sale, even revolution.

 

In some ways, 1916 was about Ireland and its long, strange history. But 1916 is also about the willingness of human beings to resist, sometimes against almost hopeless odds. There is nothing special or uniquely Irish about that.

 

In the short run, the Easter rebellion executed the people who might have prevented the 1922-23 civil war between republicans and nationalists that followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. The Free State was independent and self-governing, but still part of the empire, while the British had lopped off Northern Ireland to keep as its own. Ireland did not become truly independent until 1937.

 

In the long run, however, the Easter rising made continued British rule in Ireland impossible. In that sense, Pearse was right: the blood sacrifice had worked.

 

Does the centennial mean anything for today’s Europe? It may. Like the Europe of 1916, the Europe of 2016 is dominated by a few at the expense of the many. The colonialism of empires has been replaced by the colonialism of banks and finance. The British occupation impoverished the Irish, but they were not so very different than today’s Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese—and yes, Irish—who have seen their living standards degraded and their young exported, all to “repay” banks from which they never borrowed anything. Do most Europeans really control their lives today any more than the Irish did in 1916?

 

How different is today’s “Troika”—the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—from Whitehall in 1916? The latter came unasked into Ireland, the former dominates the economic and political life of the European Union.

 

In his poem, “Easter Week 1916,” the poet William Butler Yeats called the rising the birth of “a terrible beauty.” And so it was. But Pearse’s oration at the graveside of the old Fenian warrior Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa may be more relevant: “I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the thing that is coming. Beware of the risen people who shall take what yea would not give.”

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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