Wednesday, November 25, 2015


I’ve written about the myths and ‘real truths’ of Thanksgiving before (Nov. 27, 2009). But today, as I was rereading some of the more contemporary truths about the subsequent butchery of Native Americans that took place, I couldn’t help thinking about how this story of our American origins leads to uncomfortable parallels with the more modern butchery we like to deplore in the Middle East. We love to call the terrorists of ISIS, for example, ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages.’ And in truth, reading a piece today by David Remnick in the New Yorker (“Telling the Truth About ISIS and Raqqa”, reprinted on Reader Supported News), in which he interviews some exiled residents of the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa about the horrors that descended upon that previously civilized city when ISIS took over, those same adjectives flashed into my mind: bastards, savages, barbarians. But the truth is that they are not savages or barbarians. If there is any name that fits the fanatics of ISIS, it would have to be ‘fundamentalists.’ For they are, as countless histories have now detailed, adherents to the type of Islamic fundamentalism native to Saudi Arabia (one of their supporters), the branch called Wahhabism. When the ISIS leaders—both remnants of Al Quaeda in Iraq and many of the former Sunni leaders of Iraq including army officers quite skilled in combat—took over Raqqa, they immediately named it the center of the caliphate that Wahhabism calls for: a place where the most radically fundamentalist ideals of Islam can be implemented and spread throughout the world, including the public execution of infidels.
As the former residents of Raqqa describe it, the savagery instituted by the fanatics of ISIS horrified everyone:

 The first crucifixion came early that spring—a horrific event to recall even now. Everyone at the table remembered the shock of it. Then came more: two people, shot in the head by ISIS executioners, crucified, and left for days for all to witness in the city’s main traffic roundabout.

According to the testimony, this was a kind of violence never seen before: crucifixions, cutting off heads, brutally-enforced edicts against forbidden pleasures. The repression and violence against women was especially vicious:

      There were edicts against drinking and smoking. Enforced by an all-female morality police called the Khansaa Brigade, women were made to wear the veil and, eventually, black shoes only. They are beaten if their niqab is somehow too revealing, a veil too flimsy, or if they are caught walking on the street alone.

Children, too, are targeted. Regular schools are closed in favor of ISIS religious institutions teaching them “the most fanatical form of the faith.” Then, many are lured or kidnapped and sent to military camps to learn how to fight and kill, “how to make and carry bombs. At their graduation, they have orders to execute someone––sometimes a beheading, sometimes they just cut off the head of a sheep.” As to the journalists of the publicity groups being interviewed by Remnick, the R.B.S.S. or Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, they are hounded and tracked via the internet where they post much of their work. One has already been captured, caught at a checkpoint and executed three weeks later in Raqqa’s public square.
      Of course, it goes without saying that ISIS has already proven that when attacking ‘infidels,’ which is to say, the rest of the world, they are as ruthless and callous about killing innocents as any group in history. The attacks on Paris, the bombing of the Russian airliner with 224 people aboard, the suicide attacks in Lebanon and Iraq and Mali, and the public beheadings posted on the internet, are all grim proof of that. But what strikes me today is that the comparison to other fundamentalist groups comes right back to America, to our founding myths and those who are celebrated in them.
      The Pilgrims, for example, are the historical heroes of the alleged First Thanksgiving. It has become part of the legend that the Pilgrims—those few who survived the first winter in their new-found paradise near Plymouth—held a thanksgiving feast to celebrate the corn harvest that had kept them alive, and invited the local Indians to share it with them. But it is important to know that these Pilgrims were themselves an extreme branch of the Puritan sect that had waged revolutionary war against the Crown in their native England (the Puritans triumphed for a short time in 1653), and had fled to the New World for safety and to erect a new government based on their rigidly fundamentalist beliefs (including a coming Armageddon). Chuck Larsen, basing much of his summary on the work of Francis Jennings in The Invasion of America, has written about their fanaticism as follows:

They strove to "purify" first themselves and then everyone else of everything they did not accept in their own interpretation of scripture. Later New England Puritans used any means, including deceptions, treachery, torture, war, and genocide to achieve that end.(4) They saw themselves as fighting a holy war against Satan, and everyone who disagreed with them was the enemy. This rigid fundamentalism was transmitted to America by the Plymouth colonists, and it sheds a very different light on the "Pilgrim" image we have of them. This is best illustrated in the written text of the Thanksgiving sermon delivered at Plymouth in 1623 by "Mather the Elder." In it, Mather the Elder gave special thanks to God for the devastating plague of smallpox which wiped out the majority of the Wampanoag Indians who had been their benefactors. He praised God for destroying “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.” (Chuck Larsen, “Introduction for Teachers,”

Furthermore, the Indian hero, Squanto, supposedly one of those who helped arrange the feast, managed to be there because he was one of the few Indians who had survived both slavery in England and the above-mentioned smallpox epidemic that decimated the natives after an initial contact with English explorers in 1614. And subsequent “Thanksgivings” celebrated by the now-dominant Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony rather stain the myth of generous settlers sharing a meal with happy natives. In 1637, for example, near Groton, CT, “nearly 700 men, women and children of the Pequot Tribe had gathered for their annual Green Corn Festival”—the actual precursor of Thanksgiving. What happened next was a horror:

                           In the predawn hours the sleeping Indians were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside.  Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were burned alive. The next day the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared "A Day Of Thanksgiving" because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered. (Susan Bates, “The Real Story of Thanksgiving,”
This massacre-cum-Thanksgiving was followed by others, like a similar massacre of Pequots near Stamford CT where severed heads were kicked around like soccer balls, and the similarly savage King Philip’s War, which essentially ended the presence of Native Americans in New England. Any who were left either fled to Canada, or were rounded up and sold into slavery in the Carolinas (thus providing the inspiration for the Bostonians to troll in Africa for other slaves to fatten their purses and curse the new nation for generations to come).
            In sum, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to distinguish our ‘noble’ ancestral founders from the fanatic fundamentalists now ravaging Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East—nor, for that matter, the crazy fundamentalists now running for president on the Republican ticket. All are certain of their possession of the truth. All are convinced that the only way to rid the world of ‘infidels’ or ‘unbelievers’ or ‘sinners’ against their ‘god-given’ law is to either convert them or kill them. And the sad thing is that everywhere one finds these purists, these soldiers in the war to institute their precious god’s kingdom on earth, killing seems to be the preferred option.
Lawrence DiStasi

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