Tuesday, March 01, 2005
America's forgotten atrocity
A unique hybrid people, the Acadians offered a wiser, kinder vision of settling the continent. Instead, they became the victims of North America's first ethnic cleansing campaign.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Andrew O'Hehir
March 1, 2005 | In August of 1755 an extraordinary plan went into action along the Atlantic seaboard of North America, in what is now the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. In village after village, all male householders were summoned to mandatory meetings with British authorities, where they were captured and imprisoned as hostages against the surrender of their homes and families. Houses were burned to the ground, livestock indiscriminately slaughtered, fields of crops laid waste. Those who resisted were beaten, and sometimes shot, while those who fled into the forests were hunted down like rabid animals.
Nonetheless, many people escaped into the trackless wilderness, where some had friends and even cousins among the Míkmaq, the Native Americans who had lived there for countless generations. Those who were captured or surrendered were jammed onto transport ships, pell-mell, without regard for family unity. Brothers were sundered from sisters, parents from children, sometimes husbands from wives.
Perhaps 7,000 people were rounded up and shipped off to points south that summer and fall, while another 11,000 were driven out of the villages and farms their families had occupied for three or four or five generations. A thousand or more would die in transit, while several thousand more would die in strange lands in the years to come, of disease, of starvation, arguably of heartbreak and homesickness. Their ancient settlements were obliterated, their property destroyed, their rights abolished; their land was given away to newcomers who spoke a different language and professed a different religion. Within four months, Acadian culture was ripped out by the roots and cast to the winds.
Yes, these were not the Irish or the Scots or the Basques of the Old World, although such things had happened to them already, nor was it the Cherokee or the Lakota or the Pomo or any of numerous other peoples of North America, for such things would happen to them in the years to come. These were the Acadians, a French-speaking hybrid people long cut off from their European origins who occupied a strange position on the margins of American history and in between the imperial ambitions of Britain and France. For 150 years they lived along the coastline of what are now the Maritime Provinces, forging extraordinarily warm relationships with their Indian neighbors and insisting on their own neutrality as sovereignty of the region swung back and forth between the great powers.
Ultimately, the Acadians' oddness and specialness would lead to their destruction. But while their culture lasted they seemed to represent an alternate vision of North American settlement, one based more on friendship, accommodation and cultural exchange than on conquest, war and extermination. As Yale historian John Mack Faragher documents in his major new history of the Acadians and their downfall, "A Great and Noble Scheme," this semi-literate fishing and farming people forged a prosperous, autonomous and nearly idyllic society that was unique in the Western world.
If the Acadians didn't officially declare themselves an independent nation -- independent from the imperial struggle between Britain and France, independent from the conflict between whites and Indians -- it was only because that idea didn't exist yet. As Faragher puts it, they were "premature republicans" who saw themselves as a distinctive people with distinctive political rights. While pretending to follow the dictates of whoever was officially governing them, they essentially governed themselves, expertly manipulating the outer fringe of imperial authority. Sadly, it was their cherished independence of spirit that doomed them in the end. Eighteenth century America had no way to understand a people who were not exactly French or British or Indian, and in a season of impending war and worsening ethnic tension, the Acadians became easy scapegoats.
After the British took control of Nova Scotia in 1710, the Acadians repeatedly declared themselves willing to swear loyalty to the English king, but only on their own terms (which included the proviso that they would never take up arms, either for him or against him). Puritan preachers railed against these "neutral French," who seemed disturbingly intimate with the "savages" who bedeviled New England villagers -- but Boston merchants loved the fact that the canny Acadians would trade with all comers, and that they offered a back door around tariffs and other mercantilist restrictions. Acadian territory functioned as a kind of free market, where English, French and Indians traded furs, guns, crops, finished goods from Europe, rum from the West Indies and dozens of other desirables.
Even the Acadians' name for themselves is ambiguous, murky in origin, plagued with double meanings. Faragher explains that the bountiful North American coast was christened "Arcadia" by the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano in 1524; the French may have borrowed and corrupted that name as "l'Acadie." On the other hand, the suffix "-akadie" means "place of abundance" in Mímawísimk, the language of the Míkmaq, who became the Acadians' kinsmen and closest allies. As Faragher writes, "These explanations are most compelling in combination," and the accidental collision of alien languages reflects something essential about the peculiar Acadian experience.
Several different British governors came to the remote garrison town of Annapolis Royal with the ambition of forcing the Acadians to become normal subjects of the Crown, but most saw this ambition whittled away by expediency. The skeleton crew of British soldiers in Nova Scotia needed the Acadian abundance of meat, fish and vegetables in order to survive. And as anomalous as these people were -- by the middle of the 18th century, the Acadians spoke a comically antiquated version of French, with ample sprinklings of English and Míkmawísimk -- they posed no real threat to British authority.
But as the century ground on toward an inevitable global war between France and Britain -- the Seven Years' War, known in North America as the French and Indian War -- the Acadians became less and less tolerable to British authorities. New England villages came under increasing attack from Native Americans, who sought bloody revenge for the numerous atrocities inflicted on them by English settlers. Colonial authorities feared a broad alliance between French Canadians and the Indian resistance, and despite their profession of neutrality (which Faragher believes was entirely genuine) the Acadians seemed to symbolize this potential enemy.
Beginning in about 1749 or 1750, British policy toward the Acadians began to take a decisive and ominous shift, first under Col. Edward Cornwallis (uncle of the Cornwallis who would surrender the British Army to George Washington at Yorktown) and later under Lt. Col. Charles Lawrence, who would actually carry out the traumatic expulsion. These were military men who saw the Acadians as a military problem, and over the course of four or five years they developed a military solution.
Since the Acadians could not be trusted to become loyal British subjects, they were to be driven out by fire and sword, and their lands resettled by English-speaking Protestants. And since driving them into French territory would only turn them into implacable enemies, they were to be scattered widely throughout the colonies. Faragher draws the title of his book from an anonymous letter written to Boston by an inhabitant of Halifax, the newly settled English town of Nova Scotia. "We are now upon a great and noble Scheme of sending the neutral French out of this Province," the unknown correspondent wrote, "who have always been our secret Enemies, and have encouraged our Savages to cut our Throats. If we effect their Expulsion, it will be one of the greatest things that ever the English did in America; for by all Accounts, that Part of the Country they possess, is as good Land as any in the World."
As momentous as the expulsion of the Acadians looks now, it should be said that no colonial authority ever suggested genocide, and in the event very few Acadians were deliberately killed (although many died as a result of the expulsion). To state the obvious, the Indian nations of North America would not be treated so generously. Nonetheless, Acadian culture was to be completely extirpated; in the language of the 20th century, this was North America's first episode of "ethnic cleansing."
Some Acadians would return to Nova Scotia years later, after the British had won the Seven Years' War decisively and the world was not anxious to dwell on the traumatic events of 1755. There is a remnant Acadian culture in the province to this day. But those who came back had to build new settlements and new lives; what their ancestors had built, beginning in 1604 (that's right -- the first French settlers arrived in Nova Scotia 16 years before the Mayflower glimpsed Plymouth Rock), was gone forever.
Although "le grand dérangement," as the Acadians called it, has been almost forgotten in American history, the people themselves are still known to us. Many of the surviving Acadians and their children made their way over the years to the French colony of Louisiana, where their name went through another mutation and they became the Cajuns. Transplanted 2,000 miles into a drastically different climate, the Louisiana Cajun culture seems strikingly similar to the maritime Acadian life described in Faragher's book: a tightly knit clan society based on fishing and agriculture, ample food and drink, and a boisterous tradition of storytelling and music.
"A Great and Noble Scheme" is an important book, one that should engender considerable debate and alter the contours of American history, albeit subtly. In it, Faragher argues that the long-overlooked Acadian episode deserves a special black mark in the history of Anglo-American settlement, both because it was the first example of an especially unsavory pattern and because the culture that was wiped out represented such a promising potential example of how Europeans and Native Americans might have coexisted, in peace and (quite literally) brotherhood.
Faragher is a leading and sometimes contentious scholar of Western history and the American frontier; his previous books include "The American West: A New Interpretive History" (as co-author) and a major biography of Daniel Boone. He does not mince words in describing the tragic history of Anglo-Native relations in North America, which is characterized, he writes, by episodes of "despicable brutality," a cycle of vicious white atrocities answered by violent Indian revenge and then by military reprisal.
But nothing about the way North American history unfolded was inevitable, he believes. Manifest destiny and the near-extermination of the Indians were not ordained by God. A different path, or many different paths, were always possible, and the tragic story of the Acadians illuminates one of them. John Mack Faragher spoke to Salon from his office in New Haven, Conn., where he heads the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale.
A lot of people will be wondering why we should care about something that, while very sad, happened 250 years ago to a relatively small number of people. I mean, in the last hundred years or so we have so many glamorous atrocities to choose from -- what makes the Acadians worth our attention?
First of all, let me take up that question of the number, because these numbers can be deceptive. Back in the 18th century, an operation to remove 18,000 people was about as big an operation as any state could have mounted. At that time, 18,000 people in one location would have been a reasonably large city. So the numbers question really has to be put into perspective.
But that's in addition to the reflection that this is really not about numbers. It's about policy. For me, the whole project was an experiment in the limits of "presentism." I got very interested in the Seven Years' War because so many of the issues it raises seem to engage the same dilemmas that have preoccupied the late 20th century. Post-colonial problems. The questions of settlements and settler societies; the response of native people, which at the time was characterized as terrorism. Military cum political operations, like the one against the Acadians, or even more dramatic ones, like the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets [among the Indians] by Lord Jeffrey Amherst, that might have genocidal implications.
All these are late 20th century concepts, of course, or at least 20th century concepts. So the project for me was to try to use those concepts and see what is revealed about historical actions 200 years ago, when they would not have recognized those concepts. It's not an exercise in classification nor, I hope, an exercise in trying to make moral judgments. Rather, if a historian uses these concepts to look back at this story, does it suggest something more than it would have otherwise?
Right. You're using the modern concept of "ethnic cleansing" to describe what happened to the Acadians.
Yes. The comparative study of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century has revealed some broad outlines about how such operations are conducted. They're planned in detail, planned with a great deal of foresight. Before, in the history of the Acadian expulsion, it was really a kind of antiquarian question: Whether or not the operational plan was written the year of the event or five years before. In comparison with other ethnic cleansing operations, the fact that it was written, I believe, four to five years before the operation was set in motion puts it in the same category. It was highly planned, top-down, hierarchically controlled. So that puts it in the context of something that is depressingly familiar to us.
One of the fundamental questions that American historians have pondered for the last hundred years at least -- and by implication, since the Revolution -- is whether the history of the United States is an exception to patterns that are much larger: patterns of the conduct of nations, international law, patterns that are inherent in the expansion of Europe in world history. What this suggests to me is that in many ways American history is part of a much larger global pattern. American history is not exceptional; it needs to be considered along with the history of all other countries.
That might seem like a benign statement. But the notion that the history of this nation is exceptional, and stands outside the normal behavior of nations and colonies, remains a very powerful idea.
One could argue that idea is still driving our national conduct.
Absolutely. So the question of the exceptional or unexceptional nature of American history -- that's really how this project began.
I don't know that the people at Fox News are really keeping up with the debates within American history. If they were, they'd put you in the pillory and scream at you for what you just said, which is essentially that America isn't special and carries no mission from God. But isn't this one way of understanding the contemporary political divisions in this country: Some people believe that America truly stands outside history in some way?
Well, I encounter this in my classes a lot, the notion that American history is outside of time, essentially. We're talking more about myth -- and I don't mean myth in the sense of untruth -- about the enactment of large, universal principles outside of time. You know, the Struggle for Freedom. I'm not trying to put these concepts down! I'm just suggesting that they need to be examined in the context of real historical experience, and examined in a comparative frame. In my experience, that idea itself is extremely radical to my students.
It's not like you teach at some small-town, local college, either.
That's right. Yale recruits nationally, and gets many of the very best students. Yet many of them, in a kind of unthoughtful way, have imbibed the notion that Americans stand outside of history. We have a history in this country, and the very act of trying to compare it with other societies, other places and other times is shocking to many of my students.
I was trained as a Western historian, a frontier historian. And from the earliest part of my career, the idea was to try to place Western and frontier history in the context of the expansion of Europe over the last 500 years. That essentially is putting America into time and into place, and making comparative frameworks into the final standard for judging a historical event. So yes, it is a real divide in this country.
When you describe, very powerfully and painfully, how the expulsion of the Acadians was actually carried out, you write that this was one of the most horrific episodes in American history. That's a startling statement, isn't it? We're talking about a continent that had slavery for more than 200 years, and a continent where the native peoples were more or less wiped out. I mean, there's a high bar to get over here, in terms of horrific episodes.
There is, and I don't want to be placed in the business of comparative horrors. One of the reasons why I think this stands as a notable horror is the extent to which the history of the Acadians, and their particular variety of settler society, represented a way of planting communities in the homeland of another people that was more about accommodation than about conflict. And that fact itself became one of the principal factors in their destruction. So it's not simply the way in which they were forcibly removed, which was terribly destructive, but the fact that it crushed and put out of memory an experiment in colonization that seems to have offered a very different way to go. God knows, in our history we need as many of those examples as we can find.
One thing I don't want to do is simply to be in the business of telling one depressing story after another. One of the things that was so attractive and so compelling about doing this history was that the Acadian experience as settlers, with the Natives, and their attempt to find a way to work within the competition of empires, suggested a different way of moving forward in the world. It's terribly pathetic that it was for that reason -- and that was indeed one of the main reasons -- they were crushed. In this way I'm no different from historians who investigate the American Revolution in order to provide inspiring stories -- I'm a big believer in the inspirational aspect of historical inquiry. We need good examples. That for me is what made this story particularly brutal and sad. Here was an example we can certainly learn from today, and yet that was one of the main reasons the Acadians were destroyed.
Another of your core beliefs about the Acadian story is that nothing that happened was inevitable, is that right? Their fate was not inscribed on a tablet by God, and things could have ended differently. In looking at the Acadian example, you actually think it's possible to imagine a version of European settlement on this continent in which there was an entirely different relationship with the native peoples.
Absolutely. I believe that firmly and I've believed it for a long time, before I ever knew about the Acadians. My expertise is frontier history, and as you may know, before I did this book I wrote a biography of Daniel Boone. In that book, what I found so fascinating about this genuine American hero was that -- he certainly didn't make the world he was born into, and he was born into a world in which his interests as a white Pennsylvanian, later a white North Carolinian, later a Kentuckian, were in many ways diametrically opposed to the interests of the Indians whose homelands those places were.
On the other hand, Boone always attempted to make those moves in the utmost good faith, dealing directly with Indian people, respecting them, talking about the ways in which he admired their culture. And objecting, at the end of his life, to the fact that the reputation he had gathered during the Revolutionary era was as an Indian hunter. At the end of his life, he found his best friends among Indian people. He ended up in Missouri, among Indian people who had also exiled themselves to Missouri, as a result of the expansion of the United States.
When you look at the story closely, you find that although American history moved in a particular direction, and certainly for the Indians it was not a positive direction, at every step along the way there was a significant minority of white Americans who objected to that direction and who proposed an alternative strategy, a way of getting along. It was always contested, and there were points in time where that minority actually prevailed for long periods of time. The whole history of the fur traders on the American frontier, for example, was in general very positive; it was about finding and making connections. We tend to remember frontier history like a horror story. It ended up that way, but it wasn't that way at every turn.
The point I'm trying to make is that one of the roles I see for a historian in the United States -- and here I separate myself from, let's say, the Ward Churchills, who are only looking to tell stories about victims and villains -- is to resuscitate those points at which people faced with the dilemma of a whole new world attempted to do something good, and achieved something that was worth remembering.
To what extent should the Acadians be viewed as a mixed-race or an ethnically mixed people? And how much did that perception contribute to their downfall?
There was an early period in their history, mostly in the 17th century, where there was considerable intermarriage. It really characterized the first and maybe the second generation, when the community was in formation. Once they had established their community the rate of intermarriage fell off, but the important point was that they recognized kinship across community lines. The Acadians looked at the Míkmaq and didn't just see "others" there. They saw cousins, distant cousins perhaps, but cousins nonetheless. They often went to the same missionaries, their names were placed in the same baptismal records, the same marriage records. Because of the early pattern of intermarriage, they came to recognize a cultural and Christian kinship across ethnic lines.
In fact, this also characterizes a lot of American history. I don't like the word, but we're a miscegenated culture. There is nothing really pure about Americans. You scratch us, and we bleed many colors and many ethnicities. Our culture is about hybridity, bringing formerly separate things together. The Acadians are perhaps a more dramatic example.
Now it must be said that the French had a tendency, in part because they emphasized commerce rather than agriculture, to create the kinds of ties with the Indians that made commerce possible. They also practiced an ecumenical Catholicism and were genuinely interested in converting the Indians, where the English really were not.
Yes, you write that the Puritans made no attempts to do that.
Well, there were some attempts, John Eliot and the Mayhews -- these were missionaries in 17th century New England. But the Indians that Eliot converted, who lived in the "praying towns" in Massachusetts, those Indians were attacked during King Philip's War, and subjected to the same hatred and violence as non-Christian Indians. This remains one of the fundamental problems in understanding North American history: the English way of dealing with the Indians vs. the French way.
You've suggested a couple of reasons for the difference, but I gather there's no clear-cut historical understanding of this question. Why did the French get along with the Indians so much better?
Some people might like to suggest that the French national character was more accepting, but you can certainly find instances where the French would be just as brutal. My own interpretation is that Roman Catholicism was extremely important and the role of commerce was extremely important. In the case of the Acadians, these were people who, because of the details of their history, were pretty much left alone. During the first three or four generations of their time in America, they figured out quickly that finding a way to live in cooperation with the Míkmaq was crucial to their survival; accommodation became the salient fact of their existence.
You write that the Acadians came to consider themselves a distinct people with distinct political rights. That's another strikingly contemporary concept, what we would now call ethnicity or nationality. And you indicate that the Míkmaq had that view of themselves also; they had a clear conception that the land belonged to them and that the English had no right to it. We don't customarily think about the Indians that way; this really flies in the face of any idea that they were living in primeval innocence and had no idea about property rights.
As you know, I have direct evidence of that. I quote Indians saying so: "This is the land God gave to us. We never gave it away, and we don't understand why you think you somehow have a right to it." I find those voices very remarkable. The great fear in doing a history like this is that you won't find any voices from Indians, or in this case from the Acadians, who were basically illiterate. So the fact that you can actually go into the records and recover at least some of their voices is pretty astounding.
On that question of the Acadians' rights, there's that extraordinary moment when the British governor is berating them and they reply to him by saying: "Look, we've exercised these rights for several generations. By English custom, a right that people practice, if not contravened by the king, becomes a common-law right." One of the things that really surprised me was their sophistication in handling authority, their ability to come back and make an argument. You know, one expects peasants tugging at the cap, but these folks had no reluctance at all to stand up and say, "We believe we have these rights and you're trampling on them."
The fact is that when British colonists were still a generation or two away from asserting their rights as republicans, the Acadians were standing up in front of British governors and asserting those same rights. Maybe they were premature republicans; they were a little early for their own good. But it's a remarkable story, in part because the rights they're asserting are not that different from the rights the British colonists would assert beginning in 1776.
Much of your story is about how cannily the Acadians manipulated the British authorities, and when necessary the French authorities as well, to assume this position of neutrality, this marginal position between the two warring empires. Is this something essentially unique within history?
I believe it is. I'm not expert enough to say that this happened nowhere else in the world, but I know that within the context of 18th century colonialism and imperial authority -- the 18th century notion of monarch and subject -- this was beyond the pale. In that world, everyone had to be subject to someone. And the assertion of communal rights, outside the allegiance to the sovereign, was unheard of.
Right. The 1776 or 1789 idea of citizenship does not exist yet.
No, it does not exist. It would be an anachronism to say that the Acadians are asserting such a thing; they're not. They're asserting that they're willing to pledge loyalty to a sovereign, but they want to define the terms. The American Revolution takes another quantum leap, into asserting that the people themselves are sovereign. The Acadians didn't get there, but they argued there were certain communal rights that modified their loyalty to the sovereign. Neither the British nor the French could really consider that. It's important to say that the French found that just as offensive as the British, and when they had the opportunity they tried to force the Acadians to swear their allegiance to the French king. This was just something imperialists could not understand.
This whole business of the oath the Acadians were required to swear to "His Britannic Majesty," which finally becomes the proximate reason for destroying their culture. It's a little hard for 21st century people to get their heads around this idea, but it was absolutely standard at the time, right?
Absolutely, yes. It's just routine. When the English take over New Amsterdam from the Dutch, every male head of household is required to stand up and swear allegiance to the King of England. It's universal and mandatory, it's standard operating procedure. Everyone who isn't a sovereign must be subject to a sovereign, without question.
In all these ways, the Acadians stand outside that pattern. By the 1670s the Acadians are making a preliminary statement of neutrality, and by the 1690s they're actually declaring themselves neutral. In the end, it proves to be their destruction, but not until 1755. Basically for a hundred years they thrive under this neutrality, and that's important to recall. They don't change, but the British and French finally change as they move toward what is in fact a world war in the 1750s and '60s. They both know that this is the final struggle for control of North America, and in that context the Acadians cannot sustain their neutrality.
Realistically, though, one thing that worked to the Acadians' advantage was the fact that until some point in the 18th century, no one really has effective authority over them.
They go back and forth from French to English sovereignty, but neither side is able to exercise control.
The comparative example that I know in the American context, and which is similarly successful in asserting neutrality, is the Iroquois. In 1705 the Iroquois Confederacy declares that it will be neutral in the struggle between Britain and France. Iroquois neutrality, which is then copied by other native peoples, becomes an important part of the imperial pattern in North America during the early part of the 18th century. But the differences are profound, too. The Iroquois were armed warriors, they were extremely powerful, and both the British and the French were scared to death by the power of the Iroquois.
Whereas the Acadians had not an armed neutrality but an unarmed neutrality. Officially, they were placing themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position, but staking out a ground on principle. As I say, it worked for a good long time. Which is one of the reasons why I see them not as victims but as tragic figures. By the time the British decide that an unconditional oath is required, this notion of Acadian neutrality had become so deeply imbued in Acadian culture that there was no way they could give it up. They couldn't give it up without abandoning their own identity.
To use another contemporary concept, they were practicing a variety of nonviolent civil disobedience, which lasted for several generations.
Yeah, in a way they were. Their experience was that if they resisted long enough, the British always gave in. So they were caught by surprise in 1755, when the British finally said, "OK, well then, that's it." At that point, the records suggest that the Acadians said, "Well, then maybe we'll change our minds," but really the British were just looking for an excuse to carry out the expulsion. By that point the British had brought in Protestant settlers, they're gearing up to attack the French forts. I think the fact that they already had a plan of expulsion is pretty good circumstantial evidence that the oath is just a pretext. It's the proximate cause, but it's not the reason.
Over my shoulder, my grandparents and great-grandparents are calling out from their graves and saying: "What about Ireland?" You cite the parallels in Irish history a couple of times; didn't Edmund Spenser suggest this exact solution to the "Irish question" -- uproot the natives and plant loyal settlers?
Yes, he did. Absolutely. My argument is that this episode of ethnic cleansing is the first of its kind in North American history. Certainly it happened in Europe many times, no doubt about that. When the British sent over their new military government in 1749, a good number of officers attached to that government had participated directly in the campaign to suppress the Scottish in 1745, and the removal of the highland Scots. They have a plan that they've already carried out against the Scots, and they're bringing it to America.
My declaration is that this is something new in North America. It's not a pogrom, it's not a folk movement, it's not the result of some victory in battle. This is an organized campaign, at the state level, organized and hierarchically carried out, to remove all the people of a small nation and ship them elsewhere. This is the first time this happens in America. It wouldn't be the last time, unfortunately. It's exactly the kind of operation that would be carried out against the Cherokee.
The Trail of Tears.
Exactly. And many, many other times against Native Americans. Ethnic cleansing operations in the 19th century become common; this is just the first time it happens.
In your account, the Acadians were repeatedly blamed for events they had nothing to do with, or could not control. Indians attack settler villages in Maine or Massachusetts, and Puritan preachers stir up hatred against the "neutral French" because they're seen as sinister figures, possibly in cahoots with the Indians. You don't want to look into the past and see the present, but I don't know: the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Gulf of Tonkin, the spurious connection between al-Qaida and Saddam. Is this a pattern in American history?
Certainly there are plenty of comparable incidents in a situation where states are looking for rhetorical public justifications for their actions. And sure, the Acadians are a case in point. But there's no discounting the extent to which the Native raids on New England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries completely terrorized the population. One can sympathize with the felt need on the part of the colonists to find people against whom to retaliate. They found it extremely difficult to locate these Native attackers. The Natives knew the forests, they could shift from place to place, they were able to avoid destructive raids on their own people for the most part. In that context, the Acadians -- who were friends of the Indians and who were fixed in a location -- became very attractive and inviting targets. It's easy to understand it even while criticizing it as misplaced hostility.
That all sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? Being subjected to a terrible attack, and then taking it out on somebody else when you can't find the people who did it.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
About the writer Andrew O'Hehir
s a nation, does the United States have a conscience? Or is anything and everything O.K. in post-9/11 America? If torture and the denial of due process are O.K., why not murder? When the government can just make people vanish - which it can, and which it does - where is the line that we, as a nation, dare not cross? When I interviewed Maher Arar in Ottawa last week, it seemed clear that however thoughtful his comments, I was talking with the frightened, shaky successor of a once robust and fully functioning human being. Torture does that to a person. It's an unspeakable crime, an affront to one's humanity that can rob you of a portion of your being as surely as acid can destroy your flesh. Mr. Arar, a Canadian citizen with a wife and two young children, had his life flipped upside down in the fall of 2002 when John Ashcroft's Justice Department, acting at least in part on bad information supplied by the Canadian government, decided it would be a good idea to abduct Mr. Arar and ship him off to Syria, an outlaw nation that the Justice Department honchos well knew was addicted to torture. Mr. Arar was not charged with anything, and yet he was deprived not only of his liberty, but of all legal and human rights. He was handed over in shackles to the Syrian government and, to no one's surprise, promptly brutalized. A year later he emerged, and still no charges were lodged against him. His torturers said they were unable to elicit any link between Mr. Arar and terrorism. He was sent back to Canada to face the torment of a life in ruins. Mr. Arar's is the case we know about. How many other individuals have disappeared at the hands of the Bush administration? How many have been sent, like the victims of a lynch mob, to overseas torture centers? How many people are being held in the C.I.A.'s highly secret offshore prisons? Who are they and how are they being treated? Have any been wrongly accused? If so, what recourse do they have? President Bush spent much of last week lecturing other nations about freedom, democracy and the rule of law. It was a breathtaking display of chutzpah. He seemed to me like a judge who starves his children and then sits on the bench to hear child abuse cases. In Brussels Mr. Bush said he planned to remind Russian President Vladimir Putin that democracies are based on, among other things, "the rule of law and the respect for human rights and human dignity." Someone should tell that to Maher Arar and his family. Mr. Arar was the victim of an American policy that is known as extraordinary rendition. That's a euphemism. What it means is that the United States seizes individuals, presumably terror suspects, and sends them off without even a nod in the direction of due process to countries known to practice torture. A Massachusetts congressman, Edward Markey, has taken the eminently sensible step of introducing legislation that would ban this utterly reprehensible practice. In a speech on the floor of the House, Mr. Markey, a Democrat, said: "Torture is morally repugnant whether we do it or whether we ask another country to do it for us. It is morally wrong whether it is captured on film or whether it goes on behind closed doors unannounced to the American people." Unfortunately, the outlook for this legislation is not good. I asked Pete Jeffries, the communications director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, if the speaker supported Mr. Markey's bill. After checking with the policy experts in his office, Mr. Jeffries called back and said: "The speaker does not support the Markey proposal. He believes that suspected terrorists should be sent back to their home countries." Surprised, I asked why suspected terrorists should be sent anywhere. Why shouldn't they be held by the United States and prosecuted? "Because," said Mr. Jeffries, "U.S. taxpayers should not necessarily be on the hook for their judicial and incarceration costs." It was, perhaps, the most preposterous response to any question I've ever asked as a journalist. It was not by any means an accurate reflection of Bush administration policy. All it indicated was that the speaker's office does not understand this issue, and has not even bothered to take it seriously. More important, it means that torture by proxy, close kin to contract murder, remains all right. Congressman Markey's bill is going nowhere. Extraordinary rendition lives. E-mail: email@example.com Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company