“Violence is As American As Cherry Pie”: Here and There


Robert Prager (1888-1918), was a German-born coal miner lynched in the United States during the patriotic hysteria surrounding World War I.

A Collinsville, Illinois mob dragged Robert Prager out of his home in 1918, paraded him around town, and lynched him dead. Prager was a German immigrant during World War I who proudly flew the American flag, but spoke with an accent and was a socialist coal miner who “looked like a spy” according to many of his neighbors. Three men went on trial for his death, and after 25 minutes of deliberation the jury found them not guilty, with one juror explaining “Well, I guess nobody can say we aren’t loyal now.”

Prager’s assassination came amid a larger anti-German repression unleashed by liberal President Woodrow Wilson when the Great War began. Partly inane [bratwurst became “liberty sausage,” a presage to the “freedom fries” of the early 2000s] but mostly repressive, German-Americans came under close scrutiny from government sources and the general population. Mobs frequently attacked Germans, many of whom where naturalized citizens, and state officials, during the war to “make the world safe for democracy,” encouraged the repression—“Woe be to that man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way,” the president had warned. Before the war had ended, the government put about 6000 “subversives” into internment camps and seized property amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

This hysteria against “Huns” was consistent with American views toward immigrant groups in general. In the early part of the 20th Century, Japanese and Chinese residents of California and other West coast areas were besieged by mob actions and laws designed to limit their immigration and seize their properties. Rather than welcoming the huddled masses from abroad, the U.S. often became a virtual prison for people coming in from other lands.

Indeed, less than a decade after the Great War, the country was in a frenzy about Italian-Americans due to thousands of alleged Anarchists who were trying to destroy the country from within. The centerpiece of the hysteria was a huge show trial featuring Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti that offered “proof” of the danger posed by this immigrant group. Italians were described as “low-class, ignorant, unassimilable, and prone to criminality.” They were also Catholic, a religion which frightened the majority Protestant population (sound familiar?) and led to fears that the Italians would be loyal not to the United States but to the Vatican. Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and executed.

Of course, we are all familiar with the internment of Japanese –Americans during World War II, when over 120,000, two-thirds who were U.S. citizens, had their rights stripped from them. In a program developed by liberal icon Franklin Roosevelt, they were detained and relocated to internment camps on the West coast and had their property seized and the Supreme Court, in the Korematsu case, upheld the entire process. (About 2000 Italians were confined as well).

Indeed, whenever fear and crisis were prevalent in the United States, certain groups were singled out for suspicion and repression, often violently. Starting with the Salem Witch Trials, American society has looked for scapegoats to explain dangerous, even terrifying conditions. Not just Japanese, Germans, and Italians, but Catholics, Jews, and now Muslims have been targeted.

At various times, politicians and media conducted campaigns of repression against “socialists,” Indians, African Americans, Gays, and many other groups that challenged their views on American society. Discrimination and even violence against immigrant groups or “others” who were suspected of disloyalty have not been exceptions to our conception of democracy, but a key element of it. The ruling class, by instilling fear of immigrants and those holding different political views, was able to more effectively maintain control by distracting Americans from widespread and crushing material conditions—poverty, unemployment, low wages, job discrimination, and the like—and focusing their attention on fears of non-White, non-native born groups that posed a threat from within.


The “Donald” posing for the cameras.

Today we have another frightening episode in this national traditional of hysteria. Due to terror activities conducted by a few Middle East-based groups, Arab and Muslim populations in general in the U.S. have come under attack (as have Mexicans crossing the border to work in the American agricultural fields). Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ben Carson have led the frenzy, calling on the government to deny entry to any Middle Eastern and Mexican refugees.

Trump has called for the construction of a huge wall along the border with Mexico, and surveillance of Muslims in America that might even include creating a national database of all Mosques, just as Germans did to Jews in the 1930s. Trump, claiming that Americans are too deferential to Muslims in the U.S. due to “political correctness,” has endorsed racial profiling of all Arabs, a position that even his equally anti-immigrant and conservative GOP colleagues have opposed. Most extremely, Trump has now called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering in the United States,” including even visitors.

Carson referred to Syrian refugees as “rabid dogs” and wants them denied entry into the U.S. Perhaps most ominously, Jerry Falwell, Jr., the well-known Christian leader and President of Liberty University, where Senator Ted Cruz announced that he would run for president, said that more Americans needed guns to “end those Muslims.” While generally less virulent, many Democrats and Liberals have voiced suspicion of these groups as well, and have suggested tighter restrictions on immigration from the Middle East to the United States. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Association found a majority of Americans agreeing that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life,” and that sentiment was common across with the political spectrum. Over three-fourths of Republicans held that view, which might not be surprising, but 57 percent of Independents and 43 percent of Democrats agreed as well.

Indeed, suspicion of Muslims is not restricted to the political right. In his recent speech after the San Bernardino attacks, President Barack Obama, while warning against anti-Muslim hysteria, added that such sensitivity “does not mean denying the fact that an extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. It’s a real problem that Muslims must confront without excuse.” While not an aggressively anti-Muslim statement, Obama clearly is putting the onus for the actions of two extremists in the most recent case upon an entire group. More pointedly, Michael Tomasky, the editor of the liberal journal Democracy (which includes liberal stalwarts like E.J. Dionne, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Robert Reich, Theda Skocpol, and Sean Wilentz, inter alia) blasted Obama for not going far enough, and advocated a good dose of liberal paternalism as well.

“If anything,” Tomasky offered, “Obama should have been more emphatic” that Muslims need to confront their own communities.   “He should now go . . . to Detroit and Chicago and the Bay Area and upstate New York and give a speech that tells them: If you want to be treated with less suspicion, then you have to make that happen. That would be real leadership, and a real service. It’s ultimately a humane gesture to make toward a struggling immigrant group, to explain to them in ways they may not have thought about before what American citizenship means.” Apparently, Muslims, who have been viewed with suspicion and hatred for well over a decade, need to be lectured by liberals on what it means to be an American.

Such rhetoric, opinions, and frightening displays like armed Texans lurking outside a mosque in Irving, Texas, naturally have led to an anxious national debate over immigration generally, and Muslims in particular, and have incited great fear among those targeted groups. Now an act of violence, like the San Bernadino shootings, has led to an attack on Muslims in general, not simply the few who may have acted violently, and they are as a group accused of being terrorists.

But this is not unique, given American’s anti-foreign past. Many groups suffered grievously for it, but in the end, those responsible for the repression—Prager’s jury, Sacco and Vanzetti’s executioners, the Roosevelt Administration that confined the Japanese—were exposed and condemned. Today’s demagogues like Trump and Carson await the same fate. Their legacies will be similar to those of Bull Connor, anti-Semitic politicians from the 1930s, and J. Edgar Hoover. But until then, they can and likely will do a great deal of harm.

The task, then, is to put a stop to this hysteria before its inevitable conclusion—before entire groups are viewed with suspicion and stripped of their fundamental rights and before those who lead these witch hunts do more damage before they are discredited. Every politician, journalist, religious official, and teacher, among others, has a responsibility to be aware of America’s past history of repression against “others” and to educate and agitate to create a different world today.

The millions of Muslims in the U.S. today are no more a threat than Robert Prager was in 1918, and they deserve a much better, and safer, fate. While outrage is required, no one should be surprised at the rhetoric and actions of Trump and others like him. H. Rap Brown, the Black Panther leader of the 1960s, said that “violence is as American as cherry pie,” and contemporary events continue to bear out that analysis.

Brown’s line is important not as a pithy statement for Leftists to invoke, but as an analysis of global conditions, for terrorism is not a religious issue, but a political one. While the prevalent explanation for terrorism, at least since September 11th, 2001, has been a clash between fundamentalist Muslims and Christianity, religion has not been a core cause of terrorism. In fact, the United States has had friendly relations with some of the more caustic Muslim states in the world, particularly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, for years. While the American people have been whipped up with fears of Muslims, global conflicts which involve Islam are motivated in the first instance far more by globalization and colonialism, and they are hardly recent developments.

On May 1st, 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson sent a memo to diplomatic and consular officials throughout the Middle East titled “Anti-Americanism in Arab World.” Citing “bombings,” “vitriolic public statements,” and “diatribes” in Syria, Egypt and Iraq, among other countries, the Americans warned that “Anti-Americanism is resurging in the Arab world.”   Among the key factors in the “reenkindling of Arab animosity against the United States” was a “sincere objection to America’s part in Palestine developments.”

So, just a couple years after Israel was established, at the outset of the Cold War, American officials at the highest level already understood that the U.S. role in the Middle East was causing great animus among the people in that region. Religion, particularly Islam, was not cited as a cause of resentment or hostility among the Arabs, nor would it be for decades. Indeed, in the ensuing years, the United States would be on good terms with the Shah’s Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and many other majority Muslim states. Though “Orientalist” ideas were clearly evident in western culture, there was no great association of Islam with anti-Americanism or, more importantly, terrorism. Even when groups like the PLO emerged using tactics that were considered “terrorist” by the West, their actions were considered the purview of Arab fighters, not Muslims.

While the Iranian Revolution of 1978 introduced political Islam to the world, even the anti-Khomenei hysteria did not turn the U.S. away from the Muslim world, and in fact the Americans helped “encourage” Saddam Hussein to wage a long war against Teheran, one in large measure funded by billions of U.S. dollars and chemical weapons, as well as American military advisors who were in the field when such WMDs were used against Iranian forces to end the war. Not really until the emergence of Al Qaeda, borne out of the counterrevolution in Afghanistan inspired and funded by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, did Islam become so closely associated with terrorism, beginning with the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. The subsequent and much more terrifying attack over eight years later then cemented the connection in the U.S. between “Islam” and “terrorism.”

At that point, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab actions intensified in the U.S., both officially, with the new Department of Homeland Security in charge of state repression, and informally, with Americans attacking or at least raising alarms about anyone perceived as being Muslim or Arab [or, in some cases, Sikh or Hindu]. The time-honored American tradition of attacking immigrant groups due to foreign crises was once again in play.

So, today, both Conservatives and Liberals are focusing on religion as the source of American tensions. The right, building on the Samuel Huntington-inspired “clash of civilizations,” takes the Trump-like view that Muslims have to be monitored, kept out, or even sent away. Liberals, touting compassion and diversity as always, point out, correctly, that a miniscule percentage of Muslims have conducted terror attacks and American Muslims are typical citizens, with careers, families, communities, education, and the other characteristics of being “American.”

But what both ignore is that the root cause of attacks like those recently in Paris or San Bernardino is taking place half a world away, especially in Syria, and any potential solution to terrorism inside the U.S. depends upon events in the Middle East. The United States, as that May 1st, 1950 memo explained, had enemies throughout the region, not because it was Christian but because it was a western imperial power controlling the politics and resources, especially oil, in those countries, which were by coincidence majority Muslim. The problem is not Islam but in fact Imperialism. For well over half a century the U.S. had sponsored Muslim states that repressed their own people, and made alliances with local oligarchs whom participated in the lucrative global oil market. Now, the chickens have come home to roost.

ISIS, the current global menace, grew out of the resistance to Bahshar Assad in Syria, and was on the same side as the Americans in that conflict. Charles Glass, who understands the complexities of the region as well as any journalist, explains that the West tolerated ISIS’s violence until it moved beyond its bases in Syria and seized larges parts of Iraq, which the U.S. considered its own protectorate. At that point the Americans, and the pro-Assad Russians, began attacking ISIS forces. At that point, ISIS atrocities and terror abroad motivated by its anti-Western politics and particular Muslim ideology, intensified, as in the attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian plane. (See http://www.charlesglass.net/to-stop-isis-outside-powers-must-end-their-proxy-wars-in-syria/

ISIS’s actions have also been motivated recently, as another perceptive observer, Patrick Cockburn, has written, due to setbacks in the field. Barack Obama was not necessarily obfuscating when he asserted that ISIS was being hurt by the military attacks against it. ISIS is demonstrating its power outside the region, as Cockburn puts it, because “for the first time in two years, a period during which ISIS has created its own state in western Iraq and eastern Syria, it is being driven back by military pressure on a number of fronts.” The Syrian army, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, and the Russians and Americans have hit ISIS on many strategic fronts. While “these developments on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria may seem distant from the butchery in the heart of Paris . . . it is important to understand that ISIS is an effective fighting machine because its military skills, evolved during years of fighting, are a potent blend of urban terrorism, guerrilla tactics and conventional warfare.”

So, today—much like Robert Prager died because of Wilson’s imperial description of “democracy” and Italians were arrested and executed because of the Anarchist ideology and Japanese were put into concentration camps in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor—Muslims are under siege in the U.S. due to political and military events thousands of miles away. While ethnicity, race, or religion may be the putative causes of such repression, the reality is much more complex and can be found in generations of imperial control, conflict, and collaboration with Arab elites in that region.

Amid the hysteria and the repulsive bombast of people like Trump and Carson, and the liberal equivocations of Obama, events in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere get less attention. Short of the draconian and essentially insane ideas offered by Trump, or the liberal pablum of Obama (whose calls for gun control are obviously sensible but always tepid) no real answers lie in approaching the Muslim community in the U.S. As a group, Muslims hold no responsibility for terrorism in the U.S., or elsewhere, any more than African Americans are responsible for Obama’s drone murders or Caucasians are accountable for the Hillary Clinton-directed destruction of Libya.

Defeating ISIS, whatever that would involve, is not a strategy, but a goal. No solutions are easy, but beginning to remove the Americans and the historical western powers from the Middle East would be an essential start. While the distance from Syria to San Bernardino is great, the sources of violence are similar, and until addressed, terror attacks will continue with the ease of going to the bakery and buying a cherry pie.

Bob Buzzanco



















About buzzanco

Historian, Agitator, Sicilian
This entry was posted in Foreign Policy, History, Immigration and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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