»  National Review Online

April 11th, 2002

  The Labyrinths of Treason


It is plain that the government has no clue what to do with Yasser Esam Hamdi, the "second American Taliban." Captured last November in Afghanistan, Hamdi was held at the Guantánamo facility until last Friday. Then, on advice from federal lawyers, he was transferred to the brig at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. Hamdi is a U.S. citizen by birth, but was taken back to Saudi Arabia by his parents soon afterwards. He seems to have "dual citizenship," being both a Saudi and an American. (I have a lot of trouble with this concept. Here's a suggestion for legislators: Let's make it a federal law that if a U.S. citizen claims foreign citizenship for any purpose at all, his U.S. citizenship is thereby immediately and irrevocably annulled.) Defense Secretary Rumsfeld seems to be considering just shipping the rat back to Saudi Arabia — where, I suppose, he would be hailed as a hero.

Another reluctant inhabitant of the fine state of Virginia is John Walker Lindh, awaiting trial on a charge that he did "unlawfully and knowingly, outside the United States, engage in a conspiracy to kill nationals of the United States, while such nationals were outside the United States." Lindh is well lawyered up and will no doubt present an ingenious defense. I predict he will get off with a modest sentence, write a best-selling book about his experiences, and circa the year 2015 will be the host of a top-rated TV talk show.

Our forefathers handled these things much better. Consider, for example, Joshua Tefft, born around 1643, died January 18th 1676. A first generation American — the United States did not exist at that point, of course — Tefft farmed a small property near Kingston in present-day Rhode Island. Less than two miles from his farm was the Great Swamp, actually a shallow lake surrounded by bog. This was the scene of a terrible fight during King Philip's War of 1675-7.

"King Philip" was actually the name the English colonists gave to an Indian chief, Metacomet, Grand Sachem of the Wampanoag tribe. Friction with the swelling numbers of colonists, further inflamed by some particular injustices, caused the Indians to stage an uprising. They killed eight settlers at Swansea, Massachusetts, in June of 1675, and the war began. The Great Swamp fight of December that year was a pre-emptive strike by the colonists against the Narragansett Indians, not previously involved in the war but believed — probably correctly — to be about to join.

It was a cruel, desperate fight: the colonists crossed the frozen swamp and attacked the Indians in their fortified stockade. There seem to have been a considerable number of "collateral" civilian casualties:

Many of the Indians, driven from their works, fled … to the wigwams inside, of which there were said to be upward of five hundred, many of them large and rendered bulletproof by large quantities of grain in tubs and bags, placed along the sides. In these many of their old people and their women and children had gathered for safety, and behind and within these as defenses the Indians still kept up a skulking fight, picking off our men. After three hours hard fighting, with many of the officers and men wounded or dead, a treacherous enemy of unknown numbers and resources lurking in the surrounding forests, and the night coming on, word comes to fire the wigwams, and the battle becomes a fierce holocaust, great numbers of those who had taken refuge therin being burned.

The victory was a hard one: fearful of the enemy "lurking in the surrounding forests," the militiamen withdrew through a bitter blinding snowstorm to Wickford. The prisoners they had taken were shipped off to slavery in the West Indies. All the prisoners but one, that is: our friend the farmer Joshua Tefft, who was found in the stockade among the Indians. On interrogation, Tefft revealed that he had been living almost a month among the Narragansetts, but claimed it was by compulsion. Eyewitnesses, however, said that Tefft had been shooting at the militiamen from the stockade, and an Indian spy reported that Tefft: "did them good service & kild & woonded 5 or 6 English in that fight & before they wold trust him hee had kild a miller an English man at Narragansett and brought his scalpe to them."

The authorities believed the eyewitnesses. Joshua Tefft was convicted of high treason, and suffered the usual 17th-century punishment for that crime: he was hanged, drawn and quartered. The precise meaning of this term is as follows. The prisoner was first hanged by the slow method till half-dead. Then he was cut down and brought to a brazier filled with burning coals. His genitals were sliced off and burned in front of him. Then his belly was opened up and his intestines pulled out and burned. Finally his heart was taken out and burned, and his body cut into four pieces. This horrible procedure was almost never carried out to the letter; executioners would make sure the prisoner was hanged till dead before being cut down. When done properly, with the prisoner meeting the knife still alive and conscious, the cruelty of it was too much even for the early-modern public to watch. (In 1586, Elizabeth the First gave orders that the Babington plotters of that year be dealt with by the book. However, the sufferings of the first batch so outraged the London mob that they rioted, and the remainder of the plotters were hanged to death in the usual way before being mutilated.) Whether Joshua Tefft got the whole nine yards, I do not know. I wouldn't rule it out: 17th-century New England was a very rough frontier, and the Pilgrims not an especially merciful lot.

Was Joshua Tefft truly guilty of wilful treason? At this distance in time there is no way to know. It is not especially unlikely that Tefft, like John Walker Lindh, acted from conviction. The Rhode Islanders were very independent-minded. They had got on well with their own Indian neighbors (Tefft's wife was half-Indian) and had been engaged in chronic land disputes with the Connecticut and Massachusetts colonists, who provided the militias with their officer class. The Narragansetts were not technically at war with the colonists until attacked. The militiamen were not all volunteers: many had been forcibly impressed into service, and were not thrilled at the prospect of being dragged from their farms to fight against people with whom they had no grudge, with whom indeed they had been trading and intermarrying for years. Tefft may have been the John Walker Lindh of his day; or he may have been a helpless, naive or foolish man caught up in the tangles of a brutal war.


There is in fact a second parallel here, besides the matter of treason. The above story, which a friend brought to my attention a few days ago, came to mind while I was doing some research on the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. We hear a lot about these settlements — about how they are an obstacle to (or, depending on who is making the argument, a possible bargaining chip in) a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. I had got to wondering how a settlement gets started, and in particular how the land is acquired. Do the settlers just buy it, as the early 20th-century Zionists did? Apparently not: any West Bank Arab known to have sold land to a Jew gets murdered by the "Palestinian Authority." Is it just stolen, then? Yes, it seems that sometimes it is, though the theft is masked with formulas about "military requisition" or "compulsory rental."

I say "seems" because it is in fact very difficult to find out how this land is acquired. The United Nations did a study, and when this was pointed out to me I thought I had found the mother lode. Then, reading through it, I came across this weasely little disclaimer: "As it was not possible to send a fact-finding mission to the occupied Palestinian and other Arab territories … reliance for the preparation of the present study was necessarily placed on information contained in United Nations reports and other readily available sources." This is, in other words, not a report about a situation, but a report about other reports.

In fact, when you look into this matter, you are soon enmeshed in the vexations and obscurities that arise where private ownership meets state sovereignty. To whom does sovereignty over the West Bank properly belong? In the past thousand years it has belonged to the Ayyubids, who I think were Kurdish, then to the Mamlukes, who were Turks, then to the Ottomans, a different tribe of Turks, then to the British, then to the Jordanians, then to the Israelis — by right of conquest in every case, of course. Of all these peoples, only the British were very punctilious about land ownership, which is an aspect of the rights of the individual against the state, and the British did not stay long enough to have much effect.

Contemplating the dreary prospect of further researches in this legal-political Great Swamp, my mind wandered off to another situation where small bands of fearless, intensely religious pioneers had settled land that, on very good arguments, could be properly said to belong to someone else. Historical parallels of this sort can only be taken so far, of course, but still … Treason and massacre, embattled settlers, enraged natives, prisoners shipped off to the West Indies … There is nothing like history to get you thinking.