We live in a time when terrorism is in the news every day. The word has become synonymous with evil. We have lived with a declared “Global War on Terror” for twelve years. Yet it seems to me we are no less fearful, and no less terrified. When we hear the word “terrorism” we think of suicide bombings and airplanes flying into buildings. But “terrorism” is as old as human conflict; it’s the way tribes fight their wars.
Before the arrival of the European colonists in New England, war between native tribes was limited in scope and intensity because the warriors exercised deliberate restraint. They prided themselves on their accuracy in battle. The English, however, brought with them the new technology of muskets, weapons which were customarily discharged in volleys, making them impractical in New England forests. They also brought the practice of unrestrained, total war.
In 1675, when Wampanoag warriors went to war against the colonists of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, they used tactics they had used for generations, tactics that the Puritans regarded as “uncivilized” and that we would probably label “terrorist” today. Natives didn’t line up on broad, open battlefields and march toward the enemy, as the Europeans did at that time. Instead, they attacked individual farms, looting barns and houses and killing livestock. They struck without warning, often just before dawn when the colonists couldn’t see them coming. They killed settlers in their fields and dooryards, sometimes stripping them naked and hacking off their heads. When they captured enemies, they sometimes tortured them in grisly ceremonies. The Puritans called their strategies “a skulking way of war.”
Natives also used a war strategy that was new to them, one they had learned from the English: burning homes and sometimes whole villages. This strange deviation was a replication of what the English had done to the Pequot people in 1637.
The Pequots were based in what is now southern Connecticut; they had long controlled the supply of wampum in New England. In the early 1600’s they aggressively expanded their control of the fur trade, fighting with their traditional enemies, the Mohegan, and pushing into Wampanoag and Narragansett territory. Meanwhile the English and the Dutch were struggling for trade dominance in the same area. After a period of escalating tensions a trader was attacked in July of 1636. He and several members of his crew were killed and his ship was looted by Narragansetts. When the Narragansetts convinced the English colonists that the Pequots were sheltering the murderers, the English sailed to Block Island, attacked two native villages, and later attacked and burned a Pequot village. The Pequot persuaded some of their allies to join them and that fall and winter they laid siege to the English soldiers in Fort Saybrook. In April they attacked Wethersfield, killing settlers and taking captives – about 30 casualties in all.
The English, with their Narragansett and Mohegan allies, marched on Fort Mystic, where the Pequot were based, and assaulted the palisade. But the warriors had gone to attack Hartford, leaving 600 to 700 Pequots – mostly women and children – inside the fort. When they didn’t surrender, the English set fire to the palisade.
The resulting massacre horrified the Narragansett and Mohegan warriors so badly that they left and went home. They commented that the English manner of warfare was “too furious and slays too many men.” But within a generation, they would use that manner themselves.
Like the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Nimuc people after King Philip’s War, the surviving Pequots were enslaved and shipped to Bermuda or forced into servitude in English homes. The Connecticut and Massachusetts colonists seized Pequot lands, claiming them as their reward for a “just war.” They banned the use of the word “Pequot,” and attributed English success to God’s providence.
Terror is the chief weapon of any war, whether we label it “civilized” or “skulking.” What seems a morally justifiable attack from the aggressor’s point of view, is almost certainly terrifying to the recipient. A person is just as terrified when faced with a musket as with a war club, when engulfed in flames as when felled by a rain of arrows. It’s as terrifying to be blown to pieces by a drone as it is to be asphyxiated with poison gas.
We are fooling ourselves when we equate “terror” with a particular tactic. Or when we ascribe it only to our enemies but not to ourselves. Terror has always been war’s common currency.