President Trump responded to the heartbreaking news of a terrorist attack in Spain on Thursday by peddling a debunked urban legend about a former Army general’s harsh counterterrorism tactics more than a century ago.
Less than an hour after condemning the attack in Barcelona, Trump encouraged his followers on Twitter to study up on U.S. Army Gen. John J. Pershing and what he did to Muslim terrorists when they were caught.
The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility for the Barcelona attack.
Trump was referencing the discredited story of how Pershing executed 49 Muslims with bullets that had been dipped in pig’s blood during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. According to legend, Pershing told the 50th Muslim to take one of those bullets back to his people as a warning of what would happen should they persist. This supposedly led to a massive decline in radical terrorism by jihadists for the next several decades.
People who believe this myth say Pershing’s tactic worked because under Islam, pig blood is considered unholy. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly trotted out this story.
The Washington Post reported that Trump told the story at a rally in North Charleston, S.C., in February 2016.
“They were having terrorism problems, just like we do. And he caught 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists, and he took 50 men, and he dipped 50 bullets in pigs’ blood — you heard that, right? He took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the 50th person, he said: ‘You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.’ And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem. OK? Twenty-five years, there wasn’t a problem.”
PolitiFact, the fact-checking website, rated this statement “pants on fire” at the time. PolitiFact tried to verify Trump’s account of Pershing’s actions with eight historians. All were skeptical that these events ever happened.
Louis Jacobson, a correspondent for PolitiFact, noted that Pershing’s memoir and a letter from Maj. Gen. J. Franklin Bell — the commander of the Philippines Division — to Pershing provide “strong evidence” that the U.S. forces did use pigs as a tactic against Muslim insurgents during that era. Nevertheless, they do not support the claims Trump made, he said.
“There is no evidence that Pershing himself committed these acts, there is nothing said about the use of 50 bullets dipped in pig’s blood, and most important, there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim that this tactic was effective in stopping violence — or that it would provide a useful policy today,” Jacobson wrote.
Snopes judged a similar story about Pershing killing Muslim terrorists and burying their bodies with pigs to be false.
Earlier in the week, Trump fiercely defended his initial decision not to specifically condemn the white supremacist organizers of the violent rally in Charlottesville, Va., by insisting that he “didn’t know all of the facts” when he spoke Saturday afternoon. Trump has been apparently less concerned with the details when it comes to Pershing’s record, including Thursday shortly after the Barcelona attack.
Trump’s tweet sparked immediate backlash.
In a statement, CAIR National Executive Director
Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR), released the following statement:
“We condemn the terror attack in Barcelona, and we condemn President Trump’s irresponsible and Islamophobic response to that attack. President Trump claims he needed days to get the ‘facts’ on Charlottesville, and said nothing about the recent bombing of a Minnesota mosque, but tweeted false information within minutes of the Barcelona attack.
“The knee-jerk promotion of the widely-debunked myth about U.S. Gen. John Pershing in the Philippines — which President Trump surely knows is false since he has used it in the past — may just be his attempt to divert attention from widespread criticism of his response to the domestic terror attack in Charlottesville.”
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