The Boxer Rebellion and the War on Terror

Published September 2001

PERHAPS one of the most frightening aspects of our current crisis is the uncertainty of how to fight an enemy, which is largely unseen and incomprehensible. Americans have been shocked by the raw hatred that would sustain such attacks on innocent persons and the support of such terrorists by other nations. What is most frightening is the idea that we have never had to face such fanatical individuals and that we are facing the prospect of perpetual war. It is here that history can offer a degree of knowledge and perhaps a bit of comfort. While we often forget our past, we would be wise to consider an anniversary this month and a prior war against religious-based terrorists.

Almost exactly one hundred years ago this month, the United States and an international coalition defeated a group called I Ho Ch’uan, or “the Righteous Harmonious Fists” in China. In 1900, China was the focus of international commerce – just as the Middle East is critical today. The presence of foreigners in China led to the establishment of a secret society that tied ancient Chinese religion and culture to a holy war against “foreign devils.” Known as the Boxers because of a type of kick-boxing practiced by their followers, these fanatics were initially opposed but later given support by the Chinese government. Like Bin Laden, the Boxers wanted to kill or repel all foreigners from their sacred land. Similarly, like many of the terrorists today, the Boxers received passionate support from large segments of the population, particularly the poor.

As their power grew, Empress Dowager Ci Xi decided to appease the Boxers by sheltering their cells and allowing the growth of their organizations. Just as some governments today give protection to terrorist organizations, the Empress Dowager believed that she could protect her own government by allowing the Boxers to murder and terrorize foreigners and Chinese Christians. When she was asked to take sides with either the West or the terrorists, the Dowager chose the side of the terrorists.

Faced with unspeakable brutality by the Boxers and an attack on the Foreign Missions in Peking, an international coalition formed to oppose both the terrorists and the government that protected them. This coalition contained many of the same countries that are joining us today: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia. After a siege of the foreign compound at Peking was broken, the Empress Dowager fled and the Boxers were destroyed despite their feared secret cell network. Once defeated by the international coalition, a group that was considered unrootable and unassailable simply vanished. So did the Dowager, whose government was fatally crippled in defeat.

One of the most interesting things about the Boxers is that they told their followers that Westerners were weak and easy to dominate. Among other things, they were told that the knees of Westerners did not bend and that, if you hit them, they would fall and could not get up. Islamic terrorists have their own bizarre conceptions but they share this view that, if hit hard enough, we will become immobilized. They lack a knowledge of our history just as the Boxers lacked a knowledge of our anatomy.

The point is that today’s terrorists have more frightening weapons at their disposal but they are not unknown to us. We often forget the challenges that we have overcome and the enemies that we have faced.

More importantly, in the face of such danger, we can forget about our unique capability to deal with such threats. The Madisonian democracy was designed to handle bad, not good, weather. The Framers even inserted provisions into the Constitution to deal with extreme emergencies, including such drastic measures as the suspension of habeas corpus. We have a constitutional and legal system that can adjust to new threats better than any system on Earth. The idea that we are rigid and unprepared is to ignore the greatest strength of the Madisonian democracy: its ability to adapt quickly and decisively in the face of national crisis. To paraphrase the Boxers, we have a system with knees; a system that can bend, even when struck hard, and remain standing.

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