It was a chilly night in Philadelphia, back in the early ’80s when it still looked like it does in the first “Rocky” movies. The crowd, some holding signs, marched in its circle, chanting the name Bobby Sands. Across the ocean, in the infamous H-Block prison in Northern Ireland, Sands, a member of the Irish Republican Army, lay dying of his hunger strike. It is a very early memory of mine, and one that underscores a basic fact about growing up in my Irish Catholic family. We supported the IRA.
Like most American supporters of the IRA, we did not celebrate the death of innocents, we did not hate Protestants, and we did not provide any material support. We did, however, believe that the United Kingdom was an occupying force in Northern Ireland, which the Irish people had a right to fight. Since a standard military engagement was out of the question, that left only acts of terror.
I remember going as a child with my parents to hear Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers perform at a little restaurant just outside Philly. They would sing Makem’s classic, “Four Green Fields,” about the old woman Ireland, whose fourth county was still in bondage. He sang, “But my sons had sons, as brave as were their fathers, my fourth green field will bloom once again said she.” It was stirring. It literally got my Irish up.
There is little similarity between the goals and techniques of ISIS and those of the IRA. The latter was not typically targeting Americans, and they were not seeking to expand territorial control beyond the borders of the island. But there are striking similarities between the actions of the IRA and those of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas. In fact, the Irish and Palestinian terror organizations often worked in concert.
In retrospect, I regret my feelings about the IRA, though clearly I had no impact on events. What I regret most is the negative attitude I felt toward anything English for much of my life. It took me until well into my twenties to read English history and philosophy without a bias against it. That was a loss for me, especially in terms of understanding the United States.
I now understand I wasn’t just against the UK’s occupation of Northern Ireland—I was against England as a concept. The undeniable wrongs it had done to my not-so-distant ancestors had poisoned the entire culture for me. That is not a healthy way to think; it blinded me. But I do understand it.
Terrorism Versus Terrorism
My support for the IRA back in my youth does not lead me to any relativism regarding ISIS. There are very distinct differences between terror used in an effort to obtain territory and terror used to pursue purely religious ends. War is never pretty. It always involves death and injury to noncombatants. But the IRA and the PLO had specific and concrete goals.
The supporters of the IRA and the PLO in the United States mainly supported those organizations’ goals, not their methods. In the case of Ireland, I still support reunifying the island, even though I can no longer support acts of terror to that end. I imagine many Muslim Americans still support the re-conquest of the Levant. I believe in Israel’s right to exist, but I also believe that loyal fellow American citizens might disagree with me.
But what is the goal of ISIS? What territorial goal does an American supporter of ISIS wish for? President Obama reduced our military footprint in the Middle East dramatically. He allowed Assad to prance over his red line on chemical weapons in Syria. The president has sought to fight terror by giving Muslims in the Middle East less reason to resent us. But far from being rewarded for these efforts, the United States and its allies have been subject to increased attacks.
This is what Sen. Marco Rubio is referring to when he talks about a civilizational conflict. He said: “This is not a geopolitical issue where they want to conquer territory, and it’s two countries fighting against each other. They literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical Sunni Islamic view of the future.” This difference is essential. It must govern our unique approach to this unique terror threat.
Should we be alarmed by polls that show 25 percent of Muslims in the United States agree that killing civilians is sometimes acceptable? Sure, but let’s not kid ourselves. Plenty of Irish Americans like me supported that exact thing in the case of the IRA. In a broader sense, most Americans feel that General Sherman burning Atlanta and President Truman dropping the bomb on the Japan were justified actions. And they were.
Sympathizers Aren’t Terrorists
In the past few weeks, we have seen a host of claims from the Left that the Right is engaged in terrorism. In the wake of the Colorado killings at a Planned Parenthood facility, liberals claimed that videos from the Center for Medical Progress widely reported in these pages stoked the firing of Robert Dear’s guns. The New York Daily News proclaimed that National Rifle Association head Wayne Lapierre is a terrorist. The Right too often holds the Black Lives Matter movement responsible for police officers’ deaths.
Is it possible that aggressive political speech contributed Dear’s actions? Yes. Is it possible that aggressive political speech contributed to the execution of two New York City police officers? Yes. But neither incident is an excuse to blame dedicated, peaceful activists for horrendous acts. Almost nobody on any side is calling for killing.
Casting a wide net on Muslims based on the belief of some that Palestinians were unfairly treated and have a right to violent recourse is unfair. A good number of Irish Catholics felt the same way, and nobody talked about kicking us out of the country or barring our access. Muslims deserve the same sane restraint that supporters of Irish nationalism were granted for much of the twentieth century.
Learning From the Irish Experience
The end of centuries of hostilities in Ireland was one of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century. Efforts by Sen. George Mitchell and his partners on all sides actually made peace. It’s something we don’t talk much about any more, but it was a remarkable triumph.
What can we learn from that success? A big lesson is that the United States matters. Our power and diverse population grants us a unique ability to stabilize conflicts. We cannot shy away from that role.
We can run and hide. We can build great Trumpian walls and cower behind them. We can shy away from the world’s conflicts, as Obama would have us do. Both of these are the same answer. Trump and Obama’s cowardice are of a piece. But it is not a road to peace. Peace must be a result of American strength, not disengagement and apology. Peace can only come when people like me abandon their tribal emotions and refuse to accept the bombing of innocent people in the name of freedom.