What Rednecks Can Teach us
About the War on Terror
The people of our own state . . . are threatened by a greater
danger than the hateful German power threatened in 1918.
The enemy not only dares to shed the blood of peaceful
citizens, but he would shatter our government . . . The lives
of our peaceful citizens are precious enough, but there is a
thing more precious, and the enemy would destroy it. That
more precious thing is our free government.
The above passage is filled with familiar themes. Stable government is threatened, innocent civilians are dying, and the enemy is out to destroy freedom. Anyone familiar with the U.S. Government’s rhetoric in the days after September 11, 2001 has heard these themes when applied to the terrorist threat posed by Al-Qa’ida. However, the above quote, taken from the Charleston Daily Mail, is in no way connected with the Global War on Terror. Instead, the editorial is referring to the coal miners’ uprising of 1921 in West Virginia. If one is to take the coverage of the uprising at face value, the miners hated freedom every bit as much as Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, it never occurred to public officials and journalists alike that the coal miners of 1921 were not fighting against freedom but, rather, for it.
It has been said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. While such a statement is fraught with the potential perils of overgeneralization, there is an element of truth involved. When thousands of coal miners marched from Charleston to the slopes of Blair Mountain in the largest labor uprising in U.S. history, they fought against state police and mine guard armies because they had endured brutal treatment for decades and they felt that they had no choice but to fight for their rights as American citizens. The other side did not see it the same way. Politicians, journalists, and the captains of industry did not see the West Virginia Mine Wars as a struggle for working men’s rights. In their minds, it was a fight against basic American beliefs and values. Because the miners wore red bandanas they were dubbed rednecks. But what was a redneck? To the miners, a redneck was a union man and someone willing to fight for his fellow miners - wearing the red bandana was a badge of honor. To the rest of society a redneck meant something else altogether. For the mainstream culture, anyone who fought against state troopers and took over state property must simply be irrational, or possibly misled by radical leadership, or perhaps they were so culturally backward and uneducated that they were too quick to resort to unreasonable acts of violence. These were the popular reasons that were given to explain the West Virginia Mine Wars. As a result, the term redneck became associated with simple minded, backward, uneducated people. Do such adjectives sound familiar? They should.
How many times have suicide bombers been called insane, or misled by fundamentalist leaders, or brainwashed and uneducated? How many times have Middle Eastern terrorists been called uncivilized? Former President Bush has called terrorists a “threat to civilization.” Interestingly, my great-grandfather, when put on trial after the Mine Wars, was called the very same thing by state prosecutors. This is not to argue that the coal miners of West Virginia have a lot in common with the members of Al-Qa’ida. The circumstances, people, and levels of violence were different. What I find eerily similar are the ways in which both groups were perceived and the way in which the US government has reacted to both groups. In 1921, everyone wanted to put a stop to the miners' revolt. In 2001, everyone wanted to put a stop to Al-Qa’ida. In both cases very few people stopped to ask why. In other words, if we do not take serious steps to understand what leads radical groups to violence, and merely react to the violence in kind, then we only treat the symptoms of terrorism and not the disease itself. To put it another way, the average 1921 American citizen in New York or Boston could not possibly conceive why anyone would take up guns and form their own army in West Virginia. But some people who lived among the miners understood. One preacher who ministered to the miners in Boone County said that it was time to “lay down his Bible and take up his gun.” Likewise, when a group of journalists interviewed over 100 locals who grew up in the same area as Hasib Hussein, a suicide bomber, they were shocked to find that “Nearly all of them said they would never go to the same extremes as the bombers, but said they understood what might have motivated them.” The average American can’t imagine why someone would want to be a suicide bomber. But the people who live near them say that they understand. Why is there such a huge gap in understanding?
Tragically, Americans seem content to fall back on stereotypes and generalizations when it comes to what motivates a terrorist. Perhaps it takes too much effort to find the truth, or perhaps the truth is a little too uncomfortable for people to face. In 1921, stereotypes and simple explanations overshadowed the truth. The end result was that the miners lost their union, their jobs, remained under the same oppressive system, and were branded with a mythologized stigma that remains to the present day. What will be the end result of the current conflict? In a stroke of immense irony, the Bush Administration sought to deal with what he called, "the threat to civilization" by invading the very place where civilization began. Like the Mine Wars, this conflict may also have just a little something to do with fossil fuels and the people who work to extract them from the ground. We need to know more about the lives of workers in the Middle Eastern oil fields. At any rate, how will the Obama Administration differ in its approach over the next few years? I don’t know, but unless we know the specific reasons behind why the terrorists are so violent, then we will never really know how we can be safe.
Charleston Daily Mail, September 1, 1921
Michael Hirsh, “Where’s the Clarity?” http://www.newsweek.com/id/45728/page/1.
“What Motivates Suicide Bombers?” http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Story?id=959855&page=1.