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The first American terrorists

September 6, 2015

The words “terrorism” and “terrorist” are ill-defined and often misapplied.  Robespierre called terrorism justice and thereby made it synonymous with policy, in that case a policy being carried out by a state.  More modern legalists have reversed Robespierre’s definition, and now use “terrorism” exclusively as a term to designate assaults on a nation-state by private individuals or groups.  A League of Nations convention from 1937, which was never ratified, proposed to partially define terrorism as “any willful act causing death or grievous bodily harm or loss of liberty to…persons charged with public functions or holding public positions…willful destruction of, or damage to, public property…any willful act calculated to endanger the lives of members of the public.”  A more recent attempt to draft a similar convention by the United Nations echoes this language, but expands it to include private property, and specifies that the actions in question must be intended to intimidate a population or government.  The United Kingdom defines terrorism as a violent action intended to influence the government or advance “a political, religious or ideological cause.”  Title 18 of the United States Code uses the phrase “to affect the conduct of a government” and Title 22 refers to “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”

In 1765, an organization called the Sons of Liberty was founded in Massachusetts, then a British colony, to oppose the introduction of new taxes.  Their first public action was to hang the local distributor of revenue stamps in effigy and ransack his house.  By the spring of the following year, they had established cells in each of the thirteen colonies and had forced several governors into hiding through violent demonstrations and verbal attacks in the press.  Local law enforcement proved unwilling and insufficient to interfere with the Sons.  The British government responded by repealing the taxes in question while reasserting its right to impose taxation, and the Sons remained active.  In 1772, they seized and burned a revenue cutter, wounding its commander in the process.  They capped this with their most significant operation, a night attack on three vessels docked in Boston harbor, in which the ships’ cargoes were thrown overboard.  A mob inspired by the event would assault and threaten to murder the port’s customs commissioner several weeks later.

The Sons of Liberty and their actions have become an inseparable part of American patriotic identity.  They were also terrorists according to any of the previously mentioned definitions.  They were a group of private individuals who deliberately destroyed both public and private property and threatened public officials with violence in order to advance their political agenda and force the government to comply with their wishes.  Under the laws of the very state they helped create, they would be considered terrorists.  The crowning irony, however, is not that the United States was founded on violence, or that Americans have forgotten it; the irony is that a nation born from terrorism should have come to promote itself as the world’s defender from terrorism, self-appointed to wage a “War on Terror” to eradicate a menace without which it would have never existed.

The Wikipedia article that starts with the clause “The Sons of Liberty was an organization of American colonists” should instead begin “The Sons of Liberty was an American terrorist organization active from 1765 to 1784.”  That would be a trifle more accurate.

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