The country was in an uproar. Hidden somewhere in the midst of the civilian population, indeed, in the midst of the capital itselfthe capital of the strongest nation in the worldwere young men armed with grievances and bombs. They had entered the country legally and were organized in small cells designed to thwart the police. Some had crossed an ocean to get there, leading the nation’s politicians to condemn other countries that harbored terrorism.
The public had good reason for its panic, and the authorities equally good reason for outrage. Their mysterious enemies had killed innocent civilians in a single, spectacular demonstration of their power.
The year was 1867; the country was Great Britain. The young men with grievances and bombs were Feniansmembers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood who took the campaign for Irish independence to British soil. Dozens of Fenians arrived in Britain from New York and Boston. In fact, the I.R.B.’s leader was a onetime Union Army colonel named Thomas Kellyhe was arrested in Manchester as part of a desperate roundup of suspected Irish Republicans. The I.R.B. freed Kelly in a brazen assault on the military escort that was transporting the American to jail. Emboldened, the Fenians sought to free more Irish prisoners by dynamiting a prison in the English town of Clerkenwall. The bomb killed a dozen civilians and freed nobody.
There were cries for revenge, of course, and there were repeated denunciations of the United States for not cracking down on the Fenians who were operating openly in several American cities. (In fact, the I.R.B. was granted permission to travel to Union camps during the Civil War to recruit Irish-American soldiers for the coming battle with Britain.) The I.R.B.’s strategy was simpleFenians on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to provoke a war between Britain and America, hoping such a conflict would lead to Ireland’s liberation.
Observing all of this from his position as one of Britain’s leading politicians was William E. Gladstone. The violence and the audacity of the I.R.B.’s campaign appalled him no less than it did his colleagues. But he also realized that the Irish did, in fact, have legitimate grievances. When he became prime minister for the first time in 1868, he said that resolving the eternal Irish question would be one of his top priorities. Fenian violence, he said, was leading the British to embrace in a manner foreign to their habits in other times, the vast importance of the Irish controversy.
Today, many of us might be tempted to dismiss a modern Gladstone as either an apologist for terrorism or a misguided seeker of root causes for unthinkable barbarism. Indeed, in his own time, Gladstone had a hard time persuading Queen Victoria (who was rumored to be on the I.R.B.’s list of targets), Parliament and the public to reform or change their policies and attitudes. Gladstone’s eternal rival, Benjamin Disraeli, preferred a hardline approach. He opposed Gladstone’s flurry of reforms designed to remove some of the more egregious injustices in Irelandthe imposition of an established, Protestant Church of Ireland in a nation of Roman Catholics and the ownership of Irish land by a handful of absentee English landlords. Disestablishment and land reform eventually passed Parliament in the early 1870’s, and one could argue that the long process of making peace between Ireland and Britain began with Gladstone’s initial reforms. He was determined, he said, to pacify Ireland. He nearly did.
Today, obviously, we are faced with similar issues. There can be no explaining, excusing or putting into context the barbarism of Sept. 11, just as there could be no explaining or excusing Adolf Hitler. But history teaches us that specific conditions can lead to terrible consequences, as in 19th-century Ireland. The punitive Versailles Treaty, for example, created a poisonous resentment in Germany that helped propel the Nazis to power. Had Britain and France treated Germany with some degree of honor after World War I, Hitler might have died an obscure painter. History also teaches that after we defeated Hitler, we demonstrated through the Marshall Plan that we had learned the lessons of Versailles.
There are encouraging signs that today’s politicians understand, as Gladstone did, that injustice and repression are the breeding grounds of hate and violence. America is justifiably defending itself against the inhumanity of a global terrorist network, but it is also looking beyond the immediate battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have committed themselves publicly to the creation of a Palestinian state. Commentators are questioning America’s support for authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is now conventional wisdom that we made a mistake in walking away from Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out. We had made a show of our support for the Afghans who repelled the Red Army, but our support stopped once our strategic goals were achieved.
Even as they deplore, rightly, those who seek to explain Sept. 11 as the natural outcome of American foreign policy, Bush administration officials and people like Tony Blair have indicated that they recognize some of the grievances of the Arab and Muslim world and are determined to address them.
Whether they have Gladstone’s courage and determination, however, remains to be seen.