Out of the Office: History Lesson

Author: Jason Kelly '95

On the day after the Paris terrorist attacks, the Notre Dame campus felt a little subdued for a football Saturday, but in unseasonable warmth and sunshine we generally carried on as usual. Although the previous night’s bombings and shootings made terrorism feel suddenly near again — closer than Beirut or the Sinai, the lightning strikes before the Paris thunder — the sense of being at a safe distance prevailed.

I walked across Notre Dame Avenue, where people stopped on the center line for the best angle of a Golden Dome snapshot, past the packed bookstore and through the gathering throngs on the Burke golf course parking lot. From overheard snatches of conversation, the question in the air wasn’t “Could it happen here,” but “What retaliation should be visited there?”

Wherever “there” is, when it comes to ISIS.

I was headed home after a lecture at the Snite Museum of Art. Briona Nic Dhiarmada, a professor of Irish Studies and Film, Television and Theater, had discussed the Keough-Naughton Institute’s upcoming documentary about the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland.

The breaking news from Paris had little in common with the Dublin rebellion against the British a century ago, except as another violent episode in history. But a phrase from my reporting on the documentary for the Winter issue of Notre Dame Magazine came to mind. It had echoes in both places.

Irish historian Thomas Bartlett, a visiting faculty fellow at the Keough-Naughton Institute, was talking about unintended consequences of the Easter Rising: The many innocent bystanders killed in the crossfire, the partition of Ireland that few involved would have foreseen or sought.

“Once the guns start firing,” Bartlett said, “you never know what’s going to happen.”

If there’s a universal lesson of war, that may well be it. Still, the urge to fight back can overwhelm deliberation. Especially when disgust at the triggering act is still hot to the touch.

The British experienced that after their forceful quelling of the Easter Rising. The Empire ruled Ireland from Dublin Castle, and the rebels had taken up arms against them while the country’s soldiers were entrenched in the Great War in Europe. To London, this was blunt treason.

Irish public opinion even tracked with that, to a certain degree. There was pride in the Easter Rising’s bold assertion of Ireland’s sovereignty but also bitterness among families of Irishmen who were fighting and dying with the British army in Europe. When the leaders of the rebellion were captured and marched through Dublin, they were spat upon and booed.

Then they were tried in secret courts martial and 16 were executed by firing squad, which turned out to be a major British miscalculation, invigorating the Irish independence movement. The British also let the condemned Eamon de Valera live — “a big mistake,” Nic Dhiarmada noted in response a question after her lecture, because he went on to become a towering figure in the ongoing fight.

“In their own minds, they were trying to stamp down on the ringleaders without going too far, without losing hearts and minds,” she said. “Of course, they did lose hearts and minds.”

To an American audience — particularly the one in town to root for the Fighting Irish — the cause the rebel leaders fought and died for rings just and true. A colonial oppressor is the ultimate adversary.

Even more galvanizing as an enemy to us now: ISIS and its nihilistic evil. There’s no moral equivalence between the Irish rebels of old, fighting for liberation from a foreign power, and ISIS, fighting to perpetrate its own bloody oppression. With no redeeming objective or justification, such as the pursuit of an otherwise peaceable Irish self-determination, no gray area clouds our judgment. Fire away.

As incomparable as the underlying circumstances are, allied Western military strength stands today where the British government did in 1916 — the attacked power, compelled to confront a threat to its security. The moral certainty of the current struggle and the indiscriminately destructive ISIS ideology only increases the sense of urgency to act.

Who’s right and who’s wrong in this conflict is the easy answer. What’s right and what’s wrong as a response is more complicated, however simple it seems when fear and anger are close and modern combat allows us to feel as far removed as we do from 1916 Dublin.

As Foreign Policy columnist Rosa Brooks writes, the frustrating reality is that terrorism is a problem that must be managed more than a danger that can be eradicated. Lessons of the recent past make even military leaders dubious about the effectiveness of force under current conditions.

I don’t claim to know the answers, but it seems especially important when the blood is up to make sure we’re asking ourselves the right questions. Because, as history has repeated, once the guns start firing, you never know what’s going to happen.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.