Iraq and Al Qaeda, America and the KKK

Americans might look to their past to shed some light on the expanding violence in Iraq.

Violent resistance has reached a new high in Iraq. With combatants and civilians added together, the death toll exceeded 100 lives the other day. For many Americans, this latest spike in violence is confusing.

Of course, the immediate cause is the fast approaching transfer of power in Baghdad, from a U.S. led occupation to interim Iraqi rule. In the papers, on the television, from the White House steps, we are now being told to expect what we are seeing: unprecedented wholesale violence in response to radical social change. Occupation spokespeople characterize these acts as last-ditch efforts to destabilize an inevitable transformation. Al-Qaeda terrorists, loyal Saddamists, and Iraqi resistance militias--each for their own reasons--promise more violence to come.

Knowing the immediate cause of the uproar doesn't hurt, nor does it shed much light or understanding. The playing field is historically and culturally complex, and the political spin on each event whether placed by CNN or Al-Jazeera is enough to baffle Houdini. No wonder many people feel confused.

Americans might look to their past to shed some light on the expanding violence in Iraq. After all, we have quite a backlog of experience with the more extreme forms of political resistance. To take one example, try viewing the reconstruction of Iraq in light of the Reconstruction Period (1866-1877) following America's Civil War, when Union forces and an unwanted Federal government occupied the defeated American South for eleven years.

Without much strain it seems safe to say that, in both cases, a somewhat rigid and bumbling occupying power enraged a deeply humiliated population, with shocking results. In America all across the White South, resentment and resistance ruled the day in ways that resemble current events throughout Iraq. The tone of the next decade was set very early when, on the heels of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a self-styled freedom fighter, John Wilkes Booth, whose battle cry as he pulled the trigger was Sic Semper Tyrannis-Thus Always to Tyrants. Lincoln's crime, for Booth and many others, lay in trying to coerce unity on a fiercely independent south. Does this sound familiar?


America's first widely successful terrorist group was born of the same post-Civil War conflict. With its fiery start in 1867, local Ku Klux Klan cells raged across the war-torn South, employing violence to destabilize Reconstruction governments and launching a reign of terror that included countless killings, hangings, shootings, lashings, rapes, acid brandings, and castrations. Like more than one group in Iraq today, the Ku Klux Klan employed religious symbols, (including burning crosses and Bible verses), to justify their actions and attract adherents. The Klan was not alone in this. There were the Knights of the White Camellia and many others. They established a trend that would last for generations.

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Michael Wolfe
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