What We Need to Learn from America’s First Experience With Terrorism

The last 15 years since 9/11 has set into American minds a very narrow view of what terrorism means. A fitting standard definition is:

[T]he use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.  — Merriam-Webster

This definition both fits our current battles with Islamic extremism, yet it also encompasses most historical acts of terrorism.

In the New World, terrorism didn’t take long to strike and like today it was along a very bitter, very old religious divide — historically, we know it as the “Plundering Time.”

In the New World, terrorism didn't take long to strike and like today it was along a very bitter, very old religious divide...

Spring was not quite coming as expected in 1642 in the colony of Maryland.

Maryland had been settled a few years earlier as a refuge for Catholics, who were often persecuted in English society.

But the hostilities that were in England spilled over to the colonies — Anglicans loyal to Parliament were antagonistic toward Catholics seen as a political and economic threat.

Overthrowing the Catholic governor, the Anglicans demanded that all swear allegiance to the Parliament or their properties were seized. Many Catholics, including the deposed governor, fled to Virginia to build up a counter-strike plan.

The Plundering Time lasted until 1647, when the governor’s forces were sufficiently strong to put down the rebellion. But as a consequence, the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 was created to placate the factions and keep further violence from erupting.

Key to the act’s measures were:

  • All believers in the Trinity were welcomed in the colony;
  • Under penalty of death, the divinity of Jesus Christ was demanded;
  • Jews, Unitarians, and the irreligious were under their own peril in the colony; and
  • The use of religious slurs was banned.

In fact, this was the first known instance where hate speech was banned by law in the world.

The outcome of the law wasn’t very good–it was overthrown within five years after more bloodshed in England.

Maryland became a protestant colony, and even codified persecution as law against Catholics–they could not vote, own weapons, or be a part of the militias.

These civil liberties were not fully restored until the Constitution came into force.

2015 and Beyond

Being honest to our past is often essential to being honest to our future.

Part of that honesty is a firm grasp on the fact that domestic terrorism has largely been motivated by religious views of politics–and it plays out in both extremist left and right terrorism.

In America, we like to believe we are religiously tolerant, yet every step of the way we see bitter hatred toward minority religious groups.

While Islamic terrorism is currently on our collective mental radars, we need to take a look at what is also happening within our own borders — because we are far more likely to be harmed by a domestic terrorist.

In America, we like to believe we are religiously tolerant, yet every step of the way we see bitter hatred toward minority religious groups — from the first Mennonites all the way to the modern invention of the Moonies.

What the Maryland legislation shows is that it isn’t enough to make people swear oaths and refrain from hate speech — these actions have no meaning so long as the hatred still exists.

But, hate speech laws often are a mechanism for destroying the groups, giving prosecutors at least something to charge members, thereby breaking up the group.

Our single greatest arsenal against terrorism, both domestic and foreign, is a rich history. With almost four centuries of being on this continent, our greatest weapon is looking to the past to see what works, and what doesn’t.

Because all too often, when we aren’t at least aware of history, we doom ourselves to repeating it.