- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

They were a collection of religious fanatics who targeted all Americans for death, as well as other Westerners. They ran a large terror organization through a secret network of cells that carried out atrocities and then vanished. They claimed divine guidance in forcing all Westerners from their sacred lands and in eradicating all symbols of Western religion, products or culture. Fearful of their popular appeal, government officials appeased their leaders and ultimately sponsored their activities. One would think that this is a description of the al Qaeda. Think again. This is a description of the Boxers of China, whom we helped defeat almost 100 years ago this month. The Boxers are worth considering as we prepare for our latest (but not our first) fight against state-sponsored terror.
In 1900, hundreds of Westerners and Christian Chinese had been killed by a group known as I Ho Ch'uan, or "the Righteous Harmonious Fists" in China. They were called "Boxers" by the West due to a rough translation of their name and their use of a martial arts variation of shadow boxing. The group steadily gained support among the disenfranchised Chinese public for its nationalistic fervor and religious purity. It gained so much popularity that the Manchu government shifted from a policy of repression to a policy of accommodation. Like some Islamic countries today, the Chinese Dowager Empress Ci Xi played a dangerous game of appeasing both sides. The Boxers proceeded to kill a number of Westerners, including the German minister, as well as hundreds of Chinese Christians. An international coalition formed to oppose both the terrorists and, if necessary, 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. When forced to take sides with either the West or the terrorists, Ci Xi chose the side of the terrorists.
Calling for a holy war against "foreign devils," the Boxers gathered a force of more than 140,000 men and eventually moved against every foreign legation and major Western interest around China. This included a massive attack on the isolated British legation in Peking, the last stand for hundreds of Westerners and terrified Chinese Christians. With the mission under siege for eight weeks, a brave cadre of soldiers fought off wave after wave of Boxers and Chinese imperial troops. Due in no small part to the extraordinary heroism of a detachment of American soldiers, the Westerners were eventually saved by an international force that fought its way into Peking.
There are two lessons that the Boxers left as a legacy for the West. First, despite a secret, religious-based cell network that was viewed as unrootable, the Boxers were decisively defeated and gradually disappeared as a military or political force in China. They brought nothing but hate, destruction and misery to the Chinese public, which eventually abandoned the Boxers. In some respects, their network was more intractable than the al Qaeda, but neither their fanaticism nor their secrecy could make up for a fundamentally flawed cause. Ironically, there was much for the Chinese to complain about in the age of "gunboat diplomacy," but the Boxers destroyed their cause with their methods and their madness. The West eventually asserted greater control over China, including such punitive measures as the destruction of forts, the crackdown on anti-Western groups and the payment of an indemnity of $333 million by the Chinese government. As for the cunning Dowager Empress, Ci Xi followed her Boxer allies into defeat.
The second lesson was not taught, but was learned by the Boxers. They emboldened their followers with accounts of the weakness of the West. Like bin Laden's interviews detailing the purported weakness of the United States, the Boxers insisted that the Westerners could be easily dominated by a determined, pure force of religious soldiers. This was presented as more than simply a weakness of spirit. The Boxers actually told their followers that the knees of Westerners did not bend and that, if you hit them, they would fall and not get up. While Islamic terrorists have their own distorted views of our character, 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.
We often forget the challenges that we have overcome and the enemies that we have faced. It is true that today's terrorists have more frightening weapons at their disposal, but they are not unknown to us. More importantly, in the face of such danger, we can sometimes 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. Those who assume that we are rigid and unprepared 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 that can bend even when struck hard and remain standing.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington Law School.

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