I was reminded of the famous but largely forgotten story of Jane McRae in Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent new book on Washington and Benedict Arnold, Valiant Ambition. McRae was a young woman on the frontier in New York State whose fiancée was a loyalist officer in the British army. While on her way to meet him, she was captured by Indians working with the British, killed, and scalped. When the Indians returned to the fort where they were headquartered, her fiancée recognized the scalp because of its distinctive red hair. Can you picture the horror of that scene?
The British in fact had deliberately espoused a policy of terror by urging their Indian allies to slip into the American lines and kill as many soldiers and civilians as they could, scalping them at their pleasure. Scalping was common practice in warfare for both whites and natives ever since the founding of the colonies, but this particular incident was badly timed for the British. When news of McRae’s death reached the outside world it became an enormous recruitment tool for the Americans. New England militiamen in particular flocked to Saratoga to augment the ranks of the rebels and ensure a victory that changed the course of the war.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes, as the saying goes. The parallels with our modern world are striking. In San Bernadino and Orlando, in Dhaka, and now even in Medina we have our modern-day savages terrorizing civilian populations. Scalpings have become beheadings, and their bloody, surprise attacks are out to create as much horror as possible. Terror is so easy. Why try to fight well-trained soldiers on a battlefield when you can kill old men in a marketplace? What about women? Children? Fair game for any would-be terrorist in any century.
The other parallel is that, like the Indians, they are being incited to their attacks by “masterminds”. It was the British policymakers who came up with the idea to employ this type of warfare, and it’s the leadership of the radical Islamists who have developed our 21st century version. Without these cheerleaders and provocateurs, there would be no massacres.
Of course no Mohawk warrior was going to run a suicide mission. “Here, strap a keg of gunpowder to your back, light the fuse and rush the guardhouse!” He’d think you’d gone mad. No, the suicide bomber is the special contribution of the religious fanatic to our modern world. The promise of a glorious afterlife trumps any consideration of human decency.
What do we do about this? Like our ancestors, we are now fighting the terrorists and vowing to defeat them. The Iroquois were not beaten until Clinton and Sullivan raided their homelands and wiped out their villages and food supplies. We can’t do that because civilized governments try to limit civilian deaths. But the Iroquois desire to terrorize also vanished once the masterminds were out of the picture, and that should be our endeavor: to cut off the ability to radicalize by censoring the internet. If people don’t recognize that is a priority, they soon will as the massacres continue to mount. Finally we need a worldwide curriculum to educate the youth of the world. Forget reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, we need a curriculum that includes eschatology, the study of what happens in the afterlife. Anyone who believes that killing someone gets you a free pass to paradise needs a countervailing philosophy that will make the world a safer place.