Last week it was a terrorist attack in Mali. The week before, it was Paris. From our 21st Century perspective, we ask how such barbaric acts are possible. What motivates such evil, such disregard for innocent lives? Our American history provides some perspective. The conquest of the Americas in pursuit of New World empires by the Spanish, Portuguese, French and English often relied on the same terror tactics employed by the Islamic State in a drive for a reborn caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Howard Zinn's classic best seller, the “People's History of the United State,” recounts the imposition of an alien and merciless European ideology on the people and culture they found in America. Reading Zinn's take on early, early American history is to recognize that terrorism tactics that worked then work now, particularly in the Middle East. Just as ISIS embraces slaughter of the innocent, low status for women and theological certitude for its actions, so did the Europeans who first ventured to the New World.
Spanish conquistadors like Cortes and Pizarro treated the natives brutally. And like ISIS, the tactic was destabilize and conquer. But I find Zinn's description of English tactics particularly graphic. The Puritans who settled New England in the 1630s and staked claims to tracts in Southern Connecticut and Rhode Island found a land that was inhabited but not owned as it would be in Europe. The inevitable land grab was but one of the culture clashes with the Pequot Indians that made for what Zinn called an uneasy truce that inevitably led to war.
“Massacres took place on both sides. The English developed a tactic of warfare used earlier by Cortes and later in the twentieth century, even more systematically: deliberate attacks on non combatants for the purpose of terrorizing the enemy,” Zinn wrote.
Unwilling to battle with Pequot warriors and endanger his inexperienced troops, the English commanded by Captain John Mason attacked the innocent. Today we call them civilians. His matter-of-fact account tells of setting fire to wigwams in the village and the slaughter that ensued. “We must Burn Them; and immediately stepping into the Wigwam … brought out a Fire Brand, and putting it into the Matts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on Fire.”
The result of the massacre — of the terrorism employed by the English — was 400 deaths. Those who escaped the fire were butchered — speared or hacked to death.
And as with ISIS, the Puritans validated their actions with their theology.
Zinn writes that the Puritans appealed to the Bible, Psalms 2:28, to endorse their superiority: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.”
Substitute infidel for heathen and you've got ISIS.
“To justify their use of force,” Zinn wrote, “ they cited Romans 13:2: 'Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.'” In the aftermath, Cotton Mather, the Puritan theologian wrote “It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.”
The conquest of America reflected the European's rejection of values other than their own, a disdain for an Indian culture that was less rigid and certainly more communal and egalitarian than the tightly ordered Old World. “All of this was in sharp contrast to European values as brought over by the first colonists, a society of rich and poor, controlled by priests, by governors, by male heads of families,” Zinn wrote.
What the English found was a society where women were important and respected, particularly the Iroquois. “Families were matrilineal,” Zinn wrote. “That is, the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family, while sons who married then joined their wives' families. Each extended family lived in a 'long house.' When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband's things outside the door.”
In 1600s Europe, women were regarded as possessions, by law, custom and religion, subservient to their husbands if married, to their fathers or brothers if single. That natives allowed women prominent roles in their communities only demeaned them to the Europeans. The attitudes toward children, ownership of property and concepts of crime and punishment also were alien and therefore without value.
Zinn poses this question: “How certain are we that what was destroyed was inferior.” But then as now, it isn't relevant. What propelled the conquest of the Americas was the pursuit of wealth. Gold for the Spanish; land for the English. Expeditions were financed and payments were due. Modern terrorism seems to lack commercial intent. But conquest is conquest and terror is the tool. It was in America's earliest days and is worth remembering as we fight terrorism now.