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The Osama bin Laden of 1916

by Donald R. Shaffer on Sep 19, 2001

Donald R. Shaffer

Last week’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have elicited frequent allusions to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The comparison is appropriate. In both cases an attack without warning cost the United States thousands of lives, and stirred fear and anger. As in 1941, the event has united Americans behind calls for military action. Politicians and journalists now speak of September 11, 2001, paraphrasing Franklin Roosevelt, as “a new day that will live in infamy.”

Forgotten in the comparisons to December 7, 1941, is the date of an earlier foreign assault on the United States. On March 9, 1916, Mexican warlord Pancho Villa and his men raided the border town of Columbus, N.M. They stole horses and guns, and killed 17 Americans. Before last week, it was the last American blood shed by foreigners on continental U.S. soil aside from the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. It also made Pancho Villa as reviled a figure among Americans in 1916 as Osama bin Laden is 85 years later.

Certainly the historical parallels between 1916 and 2001 are imperfect. Villa killed U.S. soldiers during his raid, not civilians. His reasons for attacking the United States were more personal than those of the ideology-driven extremist Moslems. He resented U.S. support for Venustiano Carranza, leader of the rival Constitutionalists in the Mexican Revolution, and felt cheated by American arms merchants. Villa was also not as destructive as the recent hijackers. He did not concentrate on the mass butchery of innocents or on destroying symbols of American wealth and power.

As happened last week, though, in 1916 the shedding of American blood on American soil by foreign hands outraged the U.S. public. President Woodrow Wilson, like George W. Bush, rapidly came under intense pressure to form a quick and resolute response. Wilson promptly ordered a large expeditionary force into Mexico to go after Villa. Eleven months of searching failed to locate him, although it did lead to two clashes with Mexican troops and helped poison United States-Mexican relations for decades.

The 1916-17 incursion into Mexico is an instructive example of the prospects and dangers of launching what amounts to a punitive expedition into hostile territory. All the more so because this time the incursion would likely be halfway around the world rather than across the U.S. border. Little wonder that the Bush administration is preparing the United States for a long and uncertain conflict. As the case of Pancho Villa shows, effectively responding to last week’s atrocities is going to take patience, adroitness and creativity, not just thumping Afghanistan with blunt objects.

Present-day Americans need to keep in mind one crucial lesson in their discussions of Osama bin Laden in the press. When it went after Villa in 1916, all the United States managed to accomplish was to burnish his legend. By making Osama bin Laden Villain Number One, the U.S. media may merely enhance his reputation among alienated people across the Islamic world. As the United States and its allies try to dismantle Middle East terrorist networks through military and diplomatic action, a way must be found to discredit Osama bin Laden and the twisted brand of Islam he promotes. Even if U.S. troops manage to capture or kill him, his ideology of hatred will survive. It is that hatred that must be ended.

“America’s New War,” as CNN now calls it, must also be a war of ideas and a serious reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East to help eliminate the atmosphere that fuels hatred for the United States in that region. The United States must help to promote more moderate and tolerant versions of Islam and reconsider some of its stances that are deeply resented in the Moslem world. The United States must win “hearts and minds” there, or it will face even more imaginative and insidious terrorist attacks from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda and groups like it.

Military action was not the whole answer in 1916 with Pancho Villa, and it cannot be the whole answer now with Osama bin Laden.


Donald R. Shaffer teaches 19th-century U.S. history at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, and he is a writer for the History News Service.