Paul Revere, Terrorist

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Paul Revere, Terrorist

by Ryan McMaken

The word "terrorist" is quickly headed down the same road that "racist" traveled down years ago. That is, the word is quickly becoming an all-purpose insult for anyone that the person doing the accusing happens to disagree with. Like "racist" or its variations like "anti-semite," "terrorist" is a term employed to cast a person in a light that discredits him in all matters and is thus unworthy of dialogue or consideration as anything other than as a symbol of pure evil.

In recent books and articles there has been a disturbing trend toward "terrorist revisionism." This is a phenomenon in which one takes a historical figure and anoints him with the new title of "terrorist" in an effort the prove the truly dastardly and sinister nature of that person. The new title reduces one to a caricature; a symbol of terrible things rather than as a truly historical figure that existed in a specific time and place and reacted to real historical events in specific ways. Terrorists, as understood by those who sling the title, are ahistorical "types" that occur here and there in history and wreak havoc upon a peaceful, righteous, and unsuspecting world. Supposedly, all was right with the world until the terrorists showed up and wrecked everything. It is also helpful to remember that in the history books, terrorists are never members of established governments. Government agents are always permitted to kill with impudence and maintain respectability. Those who must do with fewer resources must labor under the onus of being terrorists. Sixteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine saw the inconsistency and recounted a tale about Alexander the Great and a captured pirate:

A fitting and true response was once given to Alexander the Great by an apprehended pirate. When asked by the king what he thought he was doing by infesting the sea, he replied with noble insolence, “What do you think you are doing by infesting the whole world? Because I do it with one puny boat, I am called a pirate; because you do it with a great fleet, you are called an emperor.”

Augustine concluded, "what are governments but great bands of thieves?" Strangely however, the killing done by these great bands of thieves never earns any of their agents the title of terrorist. That honor is left to the small time thug; the pirate of Augustine’s tale.

Most recently exposed by the historians as a terrorist is Jesse James, the murderous bandit from Saint Joseph, Missouri who led the Younger gang on a crime spree across the United States until he was shot in the back by one of his own men. At one time in American history, James was a hero to many poor Southerners and denizens of Appalachia. One old ballad recounts that Jesse "robbed from the rich and gave to the poor" and that "Jesse had a wife/ she was a lady all her life/ his children they were brave." In the late 19th century, banks and railroads were seen as tools of government favoritism and corporate pork (which they were), and the fact that Jesse relieved these institutions of some of their money was not a problem for America’s poor, especially those who had experienced the desolation of the Civil War. In a review of T.J Stiles’ Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War reviewer Roger Miller pins on James the title "Terrorist for the South" in an indictment of not only James himself but also of the entire South for romanticizing the exploits of a terrorist. This is irresponsible scholarship. Jesse James was undoubtedly a violent criminal, and if I saw him coming down my street I’d gladly open fire, but to dismiss him as a terrorist simply ignores the fact that James learned his criminal behavior fighting in an illegal war that destroyed James’ community and it ignores the kind of resentment that government meddling in the railroads and banking industry produced among the citizenry of the time. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand why some of James’ countrymen wrote sympathetic ballads about him and cheered his robbery of those whom many Americans saw as beneficiaries of a corrupt political system.

Pancho Villa is another historical figure to be rechristened a terrorist in recent years. In recent articles and op-eds many writers and pundits have begun to draw comparisons between Villa and Osama bin Laden. Villa has apparently earned the title of terrorist for his 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico. Villa attacked civilians in Columbus as well as the garrison of 600 American soldiers stationed there in the early morning hours. A firefight ensued and resulted in Villa’s retreat with 100 Villistas and 17 Americans dead. Woodrow Wilson quickly sent Gen. John Pershing to invade Mexico (at least the third time the United States had invaded Mexican soil since 1846) to capture Villa.

Villa has been dismissed as a terrorist for his "unprovoked" attack on Americans, but it turned out that the conflict wasn’t all that simple after all. It seems that the American government had been supporting the corrupt Carranza regime — a friendly dictatorship in President Wilson’s pocket — and had allegedly given military support to Carranza’s army in the battle of Agua Prieta where the revolutionary forces had been badly beaten. Enraging Villa’s army even more were the events of a few weeks earlier when 20 Mexican nationals had been arrested in El Paso, doused in kerosene to delouse them, and then set on fire. The revolutionaries felt that the Mexican government had been bought by the Americans through Carranza, and behaved accordingly. None of this is meant to imply that Villa was a saint. He violently harassed my own great-grandparents who fled the country soon after, and he was known to look the other way when his men raped the wives of captured soldiers, but terrible as it was, there was nothing remarkable about this for the time and the place in which Villa lived. What is remarkable is that Villa is singled out as the bad guy in a world where corrupt Mexican dictators routinely starved and murdered their own people in their petty political games. The difference between Villa and the "legitimate" Mexican dictators like Carranza was that Villa’s crimes were relatively localized. Carranza, the official thug, was able to spread misery across a much greater area, and with American help to boot.

If we carry the arguments of the terrorist revisionists to their logical conclusions we find that there are plenty of other names that might be added to lists of newly discovered terrorists in history. Consider the commentary of the future:

A new book on William Wallace reveals his terrorism, and exposes how Wallace should have accepted English occupation rather than challenge the respectable and legitimate rulers living peacefully in London. Wallace’s raids on innocent English civilians and his wanton killing of innocent English soldiers can only been seen as barbarous and inexcusable.


The dissident and terrorist Paul Revere should be remembered for his conspiracy to kill innocent British soldiers. No one now denies that he was instrumental in the terrorist attacks on British troops at Lexington and Concord in 1775, and that the terrorists openly violated international law by refusing to line up and face the British head-on in battle. Fortunately, during their retreat, the British taught some of Revere’s fellow terrorists a lesson by executing them for their war crimes. And let us not forget the war crimes of Revere’s fellow terrorist Horatio Gates who ordered his men to violate international law by using snipers against British officers at the battle of Saratoga. It is remarkable that some people would stoop to honoring such butchers as heroes.

Perhaps eventually we could also add Jose Marti and Simon Bolivar, those Latin American terrorists masquerading as freedom fighters, to the list. While we’re at it, should we ever conclusively prove the existence of Robin Hood, let’s make sure he’s seen as the terrorist he was for robbing the government of its lawful tax revenues. The list could go on and on.

I’m not trying to imply that William Wallace, Paul Revere, or any of the rebels and revolutionaries discussed here are beyond criticism, are universally loved, or that they all had unblemished records as gentlemen, but there is a debate as to how such men should be remembered and revered. Calling out the "terrorist" label stifles that debate. Intelligent people understand that the English have a different view of William Wallace than the Scots do or that the Spanish have a different view of Bolivar than the South Americans, but one is not denounced as a terrorist sympathizer for suggesting that Spanish imperialism wasn’t the greatest thing ever, although I’m sure were I a Spaniard in the 19th century I would have been reluctant to say such a thing. Unlike the 19th century Spaniards, however, we Americans claim to live in a free society. We seem disturbingly preoccupied, however, with rewriting history to serve our own modern obsession with utopian ideals about good and evil that permeate our foreign policy and poison the minds of Americans against serious debate on matters historical and political.

Yes, Pancho Villa and Jesse James were killers. The question we should be asking ourselves though, is why they were killers and why they attacked who they did. These are questions that should never stop being asked, and when we give ourselves easy answers by turning what should be thoughtful debate into self-righteous proclamations about good and evil, we become cowards who are too afraid to confront the grim realities of our own history.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] is editor of the Western Mercury.

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