Friday, July 29, 2005

Harris: Atheists Should Analyze Each Religion, not Condemn Them All

Lee Harris recommends that atheists be less knee-jerk in their condemnation of all religious thought. Whether "superstition" or not, Harris remarks that
The atheist . . . would be forced to conclude that there was in fact nothing that distinguished societies more than the illusions that they entertain about the divine. The Aztecs worshipped cruel and ruthless gods who demanded mounds of freshly ripped out human hearts; the Zoroastrians worshipped a god of light who spent day and night watching over men, struggling against evil and working always for the good. Both forms of worship were based, from our point of view, on pure illusion -- and yet what a profound difference it makes to a society which illusion it chooses to go with.

Few things matter more than how men chose to deceive themselves.
I don't know for sure whether Harris is an atheist himself, and that doesn't matter, but I do know that much of what he writes is interesting and evocative. He is also a "child of the Enlightenment"--though he also undertook his own "un"-education--and much of his philosophy stems from this background, along with his own grasp of history and a sprinkling of psychology. In reading his work, one gets the impression that he believes that understanding ideology is important in analyzing contemporary society. As such, he has offered atheists a method to view religion as an ideology and advises that, from there, they should logically evaluate the degree to which each religion is good or bad. Perhaps he's pointing to a comparison of Christianity to Islam? In the past, he has written about the fantasy ideology of the Middle East, with radical Islam at its core. In some sense, his admonition to atheists can be employed by anyone. Whether you believe what they (the "other") believe is less important than acknowledging the sincerity of their belief.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Recasting the "War on Terror"

What to make of this?
"The Bush administration is retooling its slogan for the fight against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, pushing the idea that the long-term struggle is as much an ideological battle as a military mission, according to senior administration and military officials. . .

Administration and Pentagon officials say the revamped campaign has grown out of meetings of President George W. Bush's senior national security advisers that began in January, and it reflects the evolution in Bush's own thinking nearly four years after the Sept. 11 attacks. . .

"It is more than just a military war on terror," Steven Hadley, the national security adviser, said in a telephone interview. "It's broader than that. It's a global struggle against extremism. We need to dispute both the gloomy vision and offer a positive alternative."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Philosophical Roots of Al-Qaeda's Ideology

Just catching up, but this post, citing Andrew Wheatcroft’s Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, traces the roots of Al-Qaeda's ideology to the 19th century and concludes:
The political philosophy behind al Qaeda’s movement has been developing for more than a century. Indeed, to a non-expert outside observer, it looks as though al Qaeda’s articulated radicalism is the only political philosophy that seriously competes for legitimacy in much of the Muslim world. Communism – which once contended for legitimacy in many Muslim countries -- is dead, and “moderate Islam” does not seem to excite sufficient passion to motivate most Muslims to risk their lives to turn in the radicals in their midst. Western concepts of “popular sovereignty,” which are worth fighting for, are not well-known and are only being articulated at all in a few corners of the Muslim world. Indeed, most Muslim governments are based not on any defendable political philosophy, but on rank authoritarianism or the divine right of kings. In the absence of competition, a coherent and superficially spiritual political philosophy can gain a lot of traction, almost no matter how horrible its consequences. That political philosophy in turn will inspire groups that are only loosely affiliated with the founding political movement. This is why al Qaeda, which means "the base," and its affiliates have been able to sustain wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, the Balkans, Spain, England and the United States, and used many other countries (Germany and the Netherlands, for example) as staging areas. Al Qaeda will not go away if America withdraws from Iraq, and it would not go away if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories. It can, in the end, only be beaten by Muslims who are willing to take a stand and risk their lives in defense of an inspiring alternative political philosophy.
Can the West help moderate Islam (such as by spreading democracy) or will none of it matter unless an Islamic Luther comes to the fore?


I took a week off from work and fully intended to blog during that time. Well, I didn't. A few things, both planned and unplanned, popped up, punctuated by my Hemingwayesque Thursday during which I went Striped Bass and Fluke fishing off the coast of Rhode Island and Block Island, drank beer, went to Medieval Latin class (took a quiz) and then attended the tail end of a low-key bachelor party at the local Hooters. (The last was truly a tame affair: I'm sure Ernest would have gone in for a bit more ;) Anyway, I'm back (but I'll warn you ahead of time that in two weeks I'll be gone again) and regular blogging will resume.

Friday, July 15, 2005

The Ahistoric Roots of Radical Islam and a Call for Muslim Accountability

Ziauddin Sardar writes in the New Statesman about the need for the majority of Muslims to rid their religion of those who espouse terrorism in the name of Islam.
It is true that the vast majority of Muslims abhor violence and terrorism, and that the Koran and various schools of Islamic law forbid the killing of innocent civilians. It is true, as the vast majority of Muslims believe, that the main message of Islam is peace. Nevertheless, it is false to assume that the Koran or Islamic law cannot be used to justify barbaric acts. The terrorists are a product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history. They are nourished by an Islamic tradition that is intrinsically inhuman and violent in its rhetoric, thought and practice. They are provided solace and spiritual comfort by scholars, who use the Koran and Islamic law to justify their actions and fan the hatred.
To root this ideology, you first must understand from where it comes and he outlines three central characteristics of the "tradition that nourishes the mentality of the extremists." First is it's ahistoricity:
It abhors history and drains it of all humanity and human content. Islam, as a religion interpreted in the lives and thoughts of people called Muslims, is not something that unfolded in history with all its human strengths and weaknesses, but is a utopia that exists outside time. Hence it has no notion of progress, moral development or human evolution.
He bolsters his point with an example the seemingly programmatic destruction of religious and historic buildings in Mecca by Saudia Arabian Wahabbists. Why would any religious sect seek to destroy it's history?
Because other Muslims will relate to the history of the Prophet, and they will then see him as a man living in a particular time and space that placed particular demands on him and forced him to act in particular ways. The Wahhabis want to universalise and eternalise every act of the Prophet. For them, the context is not only irrelevant but dangerous. It has to be expunged.

What this means is that the time of the Prophet has to be constantly recreated, both in thought and action. It is perfect time, frozen and eternalised. Because it is perfect, it cannot be im-proved: it is the epitome of morality, incapable of growth.
The second characteristic is that the ideology is monolithic. There is no room for change, argument or reform. "It does not recognise, understand or appreciate a contrary view. Those who express an alternative opinion are seen as apostates, collaborators or worse."
So no complaint or opposition is allowed. A perfect tradition can only produce perfect fatwas. And those who are seen as betraying Islam can themselves become subjects of other perfect fatwas. As a tradition outside history, it does not recognise the diversity of Islam. The humanist or rationalist tradition of Islam, or the great mystical tradition, thus appear as a dangerous deviations. In Bangladesh the Wahhabis and Deobandis are terrorising and burning the mosques of the Ahmadiyya sect, which does not see the Prophet Muhammad as the last Prophet, and insist that Ahmadis should be declared "non-Muslims". In Pakistan the Sunnis are killing Shias because they do not see them as legitimate Muslims. Ditto in Iraq. In Algeria the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) openly declared that the entire "Algerian nation" was deviant and should be killed. As for Saudi Arabia, you cannot even take a commentary or translation of the Koran into the country that does not follow the prescribed line.
The third characteristic is the self-righteousness of those who prescribe to the ideology. Terrorist acts are justified by selectively quoting from the Koran. Sardar refutes the arguments of those who say that this is a rather modern development and supports his contention with a brief summary of the history of the Kharjites
... a puritan sect which believed that history had come to an end after the revelation made to the Last Prophet. From now on, there could not be any debate or compromise on any question: "The decision is God's alone." They were prone to extremist proclamations, denouncing Ali as well as Othman, the third caliph, and pronouncing everyone who did not agree with their point of view as infidel and outside the law.
Sardar calls modern terrorists "neo-Kharjites" and explains further that
Like their predecessors, the neo-Kharjites have no doubt that their identity is shaped by the best religion with the finest arrangements and precepts for all aspects of human existence; and there can be no deviation from the path. Those who do not agree are at best lesser Muslims and at worst legitimate targets for violence. In their rhetoric all is sacred, nothing secular and retribution is the paramount duty. "Since they have left humanity and history out of the equation," says Dr Najah Kadhim, director of Islam21, a global network of Muslim intellectuals, "they have no conscience. No notion of guilt or remorse. Since the idea that they are perfect is part of their psychological make-up, they can do anything with impunity." Injustice and violence are inbuilt in their thought and tradition, which, under certain circumstances, is transformed into undiluted fascism. We saw this most clearly in the case of the Taliban.
In the end, Sardar urges his fellow Muslims to accept that the terrorists "are products of Islamic history." Muslims must realize that they face an internal threat much more dangerous than any perceived external threat. In fact, Sardar believes "it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam." Additionally, Sardar believes that for Muslims
The war on terror, in fact, cannot be a war at all. It has to be a reasoned engagement with the politics of tradition. If Islam has been construed as the problem, then Islam is also the essential ingredient in the solution. . .

If Muslims do not take on the challenge, they cede the initiative to those who have misconceived the problem and accepted a military strategy that is no solution. And that will make us all prey to more violence.
I applaud Sardar's call to his co-religionists, but in the meantime, it would be irresponsible for the leaders of those nations who are bearing the brunt of terrorism to sit back and wait for the average Muslims to heed his call. This is not an either or situation. Rather, Muslims and non-Muslims should work together against our common enemy by utilizing the means we have at our disposal. So-called "moderate" Muslims are in the best position to take their religion back from within. In the meantime, the West has every right to defend itself against terrorism. If we could do it without war, we would.

Perhaps Sardar's plan of action will be heeded and, perhaps, as terrorism declines the military reaction to it will also decline. That is something reasonable people all desire. Unfortunately, not enough moderate Muslims have been willing to do much more than condemn the attacks. They have been reluctant to cooperate with the various national governments, perhaps fearing retribution. Maybe, as a recent poll may indicate (though the results appear mixed to me), their attitudes are changing. By actively identifying and cooperating with the authorities, Western Muslims could more rapidly effect the change called for by Sardar. Muslims and non-Muslims want the same thing, albeit for different reasons: an end to terror in the name of Islam.

History Carnival XII

Caleb McDaniel has posted History Carnival XII, and another fine installment it is. Somehow, I managed to get an early mention. I guess there's something to piggybacking on the backs of the big boys! Here are some I found interesting:

Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty has posted a very good Introduction to a "theoretical" course on the Western Intellectual Tradition. He promises a syllabus soon!

Nathanael at The Rhine River writes about the bourgeoisie "municipal revolutions" in France taat were more conservative than the French Revolution they helped spawn. "They attempted to amend their constitutions; in the minds of the bourgeoisies, revolution had clear goals and clear endpoints. "

Mark Grimsley at Blog Them Out of the Stone Age argues that the American Civil War was a "people's war." A lot of installments, and I've only read the first, but it looks interesting.

Siris takes a look at Alexander Hamilton, to my mind, the most under-appreciated Founding Father. (If that's possible...I guess it's relative, huh?)

The Little Professor examines some of the history in historical fiction, particularly historical romances (he's using works about Anna Boleyn), and warns against the various perils.

Caleb also pointed to this new aggregator called Damasus. According to its author, it "scans academic journals and reports on the latest publications. It’s up as ‘proof of concept’ and so may not be around for long. It depends on how much it gets used." Let's use it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Iraq: Terrorist Flypaper or Terrorism's "Cassus beli"?

I've thought that there was some credence to be given to the flypaper theory--fight the terrorists there so we won't have to fight them here--as applied to Iraq. With the recent London bombings as background, Gregory Scoblete convincingly argues that Iraq-as-flypaper is a flawed theory.
The strategy of aggressively preempting terrorists and terror-threats, the essence of the administration's counter-terrorism policy, is fundamentally sound. The problem begins when the pitched battle between Jihadists and U.S. forces in Iraq is framed as an either/or equation -- either we fight terrorists in Iraq or we fight them here -- because the reality, as London, Madrid, Turkey and the entire tragic litany demonstrates, is that we're fighting them everywhere. That Iraq has attracted the flies is both true and largely irrelevant; the flies continue to murderously alight elsewhere, despite our presence in Iraq. . .

The idea that Iraq is an irresistible magnet for jihad, diverting the radicals' attention from U.S. domestic targets, assumes that there is a hard-and-fast number of holy warriors and that once they enter the killing fields of Iraq in sufficient numbers our troubles will be over. It also ignores the still open question of whether the conflict is motivating Muslims who would otherwise have demurred from martyrdom to join the fight and thus constitute a seemingly limitless suicide assembly line. [emphasis in original]
I concur. It really isn't an either/or choice, as London and Madrid have reminded us. Thus, Scoblete is accurate when he further explains that Al-Qaeda is too decentralized and "that the 'central battlefield' on the war on terror is wherever a suitably fanatical Muslim is prepared to blow him/herself up. That U.S. forces are decamped enticingly in Iraq does not mean that terrorists will forsake Western targets." Iraq is the biggest front, but not the only front.

Yet, this leads me to a criticism of Scoblete's belief that there is still an "open question" regarding the War in Iraq as the centerpiece of jihadist motivation. He should know better. It is more than mere mantra to say such things as "9/11 happened before Iraq." And as the blogger Callimachus reminds us:
But wait, weren't we told not too long ago it was all about Israel? And that they were all on fire over the defiling presence of U.S. military boots way on the other side of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques?

Face it: there's a simmering stew of resentment among a vast pool of Muslims over a broad swath of the earth. Many sticks can stir the pot. If a more potent one comes along, the stirrers will use it till they find an even better.
In essence, while Scoblete is correct that Al-Qaeda is too decentralized for us to think that all of their jihadist eggs will be broken in the Iraq basket, he shouldn't buy into the belief that Iraq is a unique, or even the primary source of jihadist fertilizer. In fact, why Iraq and not Afghanistan?

The answer is because, unlike the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq has caused a rift in the West which Al-Qaeda has sought to exploit. In this, they have succeeded. They have picked up on the Western rhetoric espousing the illigitimacy of the "War for oil" and used it to add a kind of warped legitimacy to their terrorism. As such, their own rhetoric is both derivative of, and buttressed by, that of Western critics of the War in Iraq. (This does not mean that Western critics are conscious, or even unconscious or subconscious, supporters of terrorism. Nonetheless, like it or not, their words are being used by those who commit terrorism). In a society already predisposed to have a strong dislike for the Western "other," stories that support these predispositions, especially when accompanied by the "confessions" of those from the West, are extremely attractive. The result is a strengthening of both the appeal and apparent legitimacy of the ideology of radical Islam, particularly Al-Qaeda's strain, among those ready to receive it.

Scoblete touches upon the inherent strength of organizational decentralization, but he doesn't really say why it is effective. The reason decentralization is so effective for Al-Qaeda is because the organization of Al-Qaeda has succeeded in installing the ideology of Al-Qaeda as preeminent throughout radical Islam. In essence, the ideology has superseded the organization itself. As such, while Iraq has been used effectively as a recruiting tool and rhetorical touchstone, there were, and will be other, perceived "insults" to Islam that will be used as legitimization for jihad. There is still Israel, after all. It is correct to say that Iraq is not the only front in the War on Terror. It also isn't the only reason for it.

UPDATE: Greg Scoblete has responded and believes that I misinterpreted his postion on Iraq.
I manifestly don't buy the argument that Iraq is "causing more terrorism" in the broad sense of Islamic terrorism - bin Laden's group, and those flying planes into buildings, are motivated by a fundamentalist religious zeal and not a political grievance. They can't be appeased. Nor should they.

That doesn't change the basic though murky question: are Muslims entering Iraq and committing acts of terrorism who would have otherwise not embraced terrorism? If that question is answered affirmatively, our job is immeasurably harder. If the answer is no, then our prospects improve.
My apologies to Greg for the misunderstanding. So, we agree that Iraq isn't a conspicuous root cause for terrorism.

Greg's main concern is whether our job in Iraq is made tougher because more terror-minded individuals are able to enter the fray there. As Greg mentions, the geographical convenience of Iraq facilitates greater "participation" in jihad. Perhaps, then, the answer is this: the number of potential terrorists has not increased, but the number of both potential terrorists able to actively participate in jihad (facilitated by their proximity of Iraq) as well as the rate at which these potential terrorists have actually decided to take action (and die) has increased. The easier something is to do, the more likely it is that more people will do it.

Iraq is not a conspicuous motivator for more terror, it is just another piece of the ideological template. Thus, I don't think that more people are being "converted" to terrorism because of Iraq. But the practical affect of a larger battlefield that is closer to the terrorist nexus has been an increase in the rate at which passive consumers of terrorist ideology are able to become proactive jihadists. But remember, the location of the terrorists is more important than their number: 100 terrorists in Fallujah facing down a battalion of Soldiers or Marines is less of a threat than 100 terrorists dispersed throughout the U.S. ready to self-detonate.

Friday, July 08, 2005

"America's Unfinished Revolution": A Symposium ...

The Cliopatria blog is hosting another symposium. This time it's on Gary Nash's essay (partial excerpt) entitled "America's Unfinished Revolution." Go to the symposium for reaction by some of the big boys before reading my two cents.

I've done some research into the historiography of how Bernard Bailyn's "paradigmic" Ideological Origins of the American Revolution has been interpreted, reinterpreted, over-interpreted, misinterpreted and criticized. Included in this is the contemporary critique made by Nash on a 1973 essay written by Bailyn. Bailyn had contributed the lead essay in a compilation of papers [Essays on the American Revolution, ed., Kurtz and Hudson] that had been read at a symposium on the American Revolution held at Williamsburg in 1971. Entitled “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation,” it was a summary of Bailyn’s understanding of the core factors of the American Revolution, based mostly on his previous work. He also addressed the difficulty of explaining the roles of loyalists and slaveholders within his interpretative framework and recounted the years after independence, in which he emphasized both the optimism of Americans and their distrust of power and those of privilege who tended to wield it.

In his review [Nash, The William and Mary Quarterly 31, no.2 (1974), 311-314], Nash contended that the fundamental flaw in Bailyn’s overall interpretation of the Revolution was his insistence on according minimal credit to socioeconomic forces as important causative factors of the Revolution. This particular criticism was nothihng new. In fact, others, such as Gordon Wood, had implied as much nearly a decade earlier. [Wood, The William and Mary Quarterly 23, no.1 (1966): 3-32.] Nash's criticism was much more strident in tone. He argued that the relationship between various social groups and the particular ideologies that they embraced was inseparable. Nash also charged that Bailyn seemed too cavalier in his treatment of the slavery issue. He took particular umbrage with Bailyn for saying that the failure to abolish slavery was “an admirable ‘refusal,’” which kept the Revolutionary movement from sliding off into the “’fanaticism’” of abolition. Finally, Nash criticized the entire compilation of essays, and took the editors of the work to task for not including any essays that addressed the issues of either African-American or Native American viewpoints during the Revolutionary era.

Bailyn responded to Nash’s critique first by stating his original goals in writing his essay and then by addressing Nash’s particular charges. Bailyn reiterated his statement in the essay that his explanation “does not drain the Revolution of its internal social struggles” nor any of the other favorite themes of social or radical historians. What it did do, Bailyn wrote, was describe “why at a particular time the colonists rebelled and establishes the point of departure for the constructive efforts that followed.” As to the slavery issue, Bailyn stated that he was only attempting to explain the reasons why the revolutionaries failed to abolish slavery, not to excuse them. Bailyn’s explanation for why the revolutionaries didn’t address the issue was that “they generally saw the incompatibility of slavery with the free states they hoped to create, condemned the institution, and did eliminate it in the northeast and northwest.” According to Bailyn, the contemporary reasons given were fear of societal tensions with many newly released slaves and, more importantly, a desire to not sunder the nation over the slavery issue, “which a fanatical pursuit of abolition at that point would almost certainly have done.” He again referred to his own essay, quoting "A successful and liberty-loving republic might someday destroy the slavery that it had been obliged to tolerate at the start; a weak and fragmented nation would never be able to do so.” Nash replied by criticizing Bailyn’s “Anglocentric history with a passion” and inability to be properly critical of the founders’ attitude toward slavery.

With this over 30-year old debate as perspective, we can see that, according to Nash in his latest essay, nothing has changed. But as the respondents of the symposium at Cliopatria have shown, that's not quite true. As such, could it be that Nash merely wants to continue a battle already won because that's the only arena he knows? Is this what happens when "history with a purpose" achieves its essential goals? Apparently the answer is yes. Instead of looking for a new method or focus, the contemporary moral historian must continue to write as if nothing has changed since he took up the "good fight." Thus, his perspective becomes akin to that of Quixote as he regarded the windmills.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Does Field Specialism Occur too Early?

The PhD (Dphil) in English has much to be said for it. It's good training in scholarly method. It instructs the student how to handle large projects. Occasionally (too occasionally) it adds to the store of human knowledge. The downside is that it pre-specialises the mind. It encourages a scholar, in their early twenties, to draw the boundaries too tight. This, in turn, leads to the greatest bane of current academic life: field specialism.

"Can you teach Wordsworth this semester?" you ask. "No," is the reply, "I'm a Keatsian. Try Snodgrass. He did his PhD on the Prelude".
John Sutherland was writing about English professors, but I think his thoughts could be broadly applied to the historical profession. In history, I don't think that field specialism per se is bad, only that so many specialize in a field so early. The traditional PhD track encourages people to travel from undergrad->PhD without ever leaving the Ivy covered walls for, on average (I guess), 8-10 years of professional development.

Every field, be it engineering or history, encourages specialization, but the academic environment offers an opportunity to conduct deeper, more thorough and more general investigation into the broader field of history than do the professions that require entrance into the "real world" of capitalist society. However, the reality is that the traditional PhD track encourages a rapid narrowing of focus from the general, to the specialty to the near-microscopic examination of a particular area. The result is often akin to studying a blade of grass in one small patch of one corner of a vast field. One acquires a deep and thorough knowledge of the particular blade of grass and the soil from which it grows. As a matter of course, knowledge of the wider patch in which the blade of grass is located is also pretty thorough, but as the area expands--from the patch, to the corner to the field--knowledge becomes shallower. Would it be better to require that young historians be more general in scholarship? That instead of embarking on a deep-sea voyage for the "Golden Monograph" right off, they should test the coastal waters in dugout? Would a young historian be better served by being encouraged to research and write for publication shorter pieces-- at first, more general pieces to be followed by topically narrower pieces--as a way to practice before taking the monographic plunge?

As a non-traditional grad student, I realize that I don't have all of the insight necessary to answer these questions. I also realize that my particular situation--an older grad student with a non-history undergrad background--may bias me against the traditional uninterrupted PhD track that culminates in a dissertation, which hopefully gets published. With all that being said, how uninformed am I? Does specialization occur too soon?

Friday, July 01, 2005

Blogging the Battle of Gettysburg

What if blogs existed in 1863? What would it look like if someone "live-blogged" the Battle of Gettysburg? Something like this?
Bloody, bloody, day.

How we survived it, I don’t know. I can tell you that it was no thanks to our “generalship.” I put that in quotation marks because I don’t think there’s ever been a more wretched group of incompetent officers in the history of warfare. Oh there are exceptions like General Reynolds (God Rest his soul), General Hancock and a few others. But by and large, the only reason our army still lives is because of the individual bravery of the union soldier.

My beloved Iron Brigade is a perfect example. Cut off from the rest of I Corps on the extreme left of the fight, most of our boys running for their lives, those boys in the slouched black hats stood firm! They had rebs on three sides of them but they stopped the advance of Lee’s men long enough to give ther rest of their comrades from I Corps the chance to get away and fight tomorrow.

It cost my Black Hatters dear; they lost 1100 out of 1800 engaged.

I’m getting similar figures from other commands. Some regiments in XI Corps have simply ceased to exist with 90% or more in killed, wounded, missing. It looks like we lost about 30% from both Corps but the stragglers are still coming in.

The retreat through town was a mess and with no real leadership our boys had to pretty much figure out for themselves where the army was making a stand.
A very cool idea. [via Glenn at What Attitude Problem]

History Carnival XI

If you tire of burgers and dogs, sun and fun, why not take a peek at History Carnival XI over at Siris. It's a dandy with nice graphics, too, I might add. Yes, the bar continues to get raised.

Brian Williams: "Several U.S. presidents were. . . probably considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England"

Brian Williams is the latest to engage in a shallow historical analogy and expose himself to criticism. Prior to last night's NBC News telecast, Williams wrote:
Many Americans woke up to a curious story this morning: several of the former Iran Hostages have decided there is a strong resemblance between Iran's new president and one of their captors more than 25 years ago. The White House and most official branches of government are ducking any substantive comment on this story, and photo analysis is going on at this and other news organizations. It is a story that will be at or near the top of our broadcast and certainly made for a robust debate in our afternoon editorial meeting, when several of us raised the point (I'll leave it to others to decide germaneness) that several U.S. presidents were at minimum revolutionaries, and probably were considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England.
He followed this up in his nightly newscast when, referring to the report on the story by Andrea Mitchell, Williams asked,
"What would it all matter if proven true? Someone brought up today the first several U.S. presidents were certainly revolutionaries and might have been called 'terrorists' by the British crown, after all."[source]
GOP Vixen has one of many responses:
I'd like to add to the pile of facts being assembled by reminding Williams that John Adams, no doubt one of the "terrorists" Williams was talking about, successfully defended, in the face of fierce public opinion, British soldiers accused of firing into a crowd in what came to be known as The Boston Massacre.
Another remarked that
During the Revolutionary War, the British burned homes of settlers, executed ‘traitors’ and ransacked the nation. We gave the British soldiers quarter for the most part and eventually shipped a large number of Red Coats back to England . . . alive. Never did American soldiers storm into buildings and take everyone inside hostage.
While these and others are properly critical of Williams' facile analogy, he also should be critized for anachronistically applying the terminology of "terrorism" to actions in the Revolutionary Era. As such, I would add that the Loyalists in the American Colonies weren't treated well by their Revolutionary neighbors, however to call their actions "terrorism" is simply not correct. (Also, I'd advise that no one calls on the church-burning scene in The Patriot as proof for British atrocities!) Finally, I realize this incident is being seized upon by some of the usual suspects, but that shouldn't stop historians of all political stripes from being critical of Williams.

UPDATE: Callimachus at Done With Mirrors has posted his own worthwhile thoughts, including a bit on what the British thought of the American Revolutionaries and a link to the etymological origins of "terrorism."