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Terrorism Revisited

June 2024
6min read

Terrorists armed with high explosives have been busy on our shores lately. America has weathered such attacks before.

“Dynamite! of all the good stuff, this is the stuff. Stuff several pounds … into an inch pipe … in the immediate neighborhood of a lot of rich loafers … and light the fuse. A most cheerful and gratifying result will follow. … [It] beats a bushel of ballots all hollow, and don’t you forget it.” This sunny exhortation was part of a letter to the editor that appeared in an anarchist newspaper in Chicago in 1885. A year later, when a bomb that killed one policeman and mortally wounded seven others was thrown at a mass meeting in an open square of the city known as the Haymarket, it was enough to get two of The Alarm’s editors (and two other men) hanged, even though no concrete evidence connected them in any way to the actual offense.

I am reminded of this dark event by the news of the arrest of the “Islamic fundamentalists” charged with conspiring to blow up New York’s World Trade Center early this year. We are possibly at the start of a new upsurge of panic over terrorists—particularly terrorists armed with high explosives—and a retrospective look at earlier epidemics of the fever may prove useful.

The first outbreak, around the time of the Haymarket affair, was a response to the perceived popularity, at the end of the 1880s, of the doctrine of anarchism—or rather of one strain of it. Anarchists held that government, any government, was in itself an oppressive device used by the rich and powerful to help them rob the down-trodden toilers of the earth. All of them hoped for the eventual disappearance of the state, but some—and only some—believed that the process could be hurried along by stirring the wretched of the earth to revolution. One way to do this was through dramatic acts of antiestablishment violence that would show the vulnerability of the ruling classes. A single assassination might be the push needed to bring down the whole rotten structure. Believers in this “propaganda of the deed” were to be found in major industrial cities of the United States, primarily among foreign-born pro-labor activists.

Eight such agitators were rounded up after the Haymarket bombing and charged with being accessories. One, Albert Parsons, was a native-born American—and, moreover, a Confederate war veteran. The trial was conducted by a patently biased judge in a hostile atmosphere, for the overwhelming majority of Americans shared the sentiments of the newspaper editors who referred to the presumed perpetrators as “foreign savages,” “desperate fanatics,” and “pirates” who deserved to be “repressed, swiftly, sternly and without parley.” It was anarchism (generally lumped in the press with “socialism” and “communism”) that was in the dock, and a guilty verdict was predictable from the start, though no one knows to this day who actually threw the bomb. Seven men were sentenced to death, and one to jail. On November 10, 1887, one committed suicide in his cell; Gov. Richard Oglesby commuted the sentence of two more to life imprisonment; the other four (Parsons among them) died on the gallows. Six years later a new Illinois governor, John P. Altgeld, after reviewing the record, pardoned the three survivors in a show of courage that turned out to be an act of political suicide as well.

To say that the Haymarket eight were unfairly treated under the law is by no means to deny the reality of danger from violence-prone anarchists. Between 1894 and 1900 four European heads of state—a President of France, the Prime Minister of Spain, the Empress of Austria, and the King of Italy—were assassinated by professed anarchists. Then, on September 6, 1901, President William McKinley, visiting the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo, was fatally wounded by Leon Czolgosz, who declared prior to his execution: “I don’t believe we should have any rulers. It is right to kill them.” But these assaults, committed with daggers and revolvers, were less unnerving than dynamite attacks on “bourgeois” cultural and institutional centers. In France and Spain during the 189Os, bombs were flung into an opera house, a police station, a church, a mining company’s Paris office, and the Chamber of Deputies. Innocent bystanders, women and children, were blown to bits. Such episodes justified the use of the term terrorism. Nothing could be more paralyzing—literally more full of terror—to the average citizen, far removed from power, than the fear of death or mutilation at any moment, in any place, at the hands of an unknown fanatic. In the United States the image of the terrorist as a whiskered foreigner, holding a round bomb with a sputtering fuse, became a fixture of cartoonists’ repertories and the public’s consciousness. After McKinley’s death, President Theodore Roosevelt declared that anarchism was “a crime against the whole human race” and asked that the immigration laws be amended to exclude persons “teaching disbelief in or opposition to…organized government.” They were.

After 1901 individual acts of terror subsided, and the center of gravity of anarchist activism shifted into syndicalist trade unions, which favored the general strike as the battering ram of choice to pulverize the bourgeois state apparatus. In 1914 the struggle was submerged in the overall slaughter of the Great War. Out of that conflict came the Bolshevik Revolution and in the United States, in 1919, a second great wave of antiradical fear and loathing.

The setting was perfect. Wartime patriotic fervor and suspicion of dissenters still smoldered. Meanwhile, the economic shock of demobilization and reconversion launched a wave of strikes—in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the coal mines of West Virginia, even among the police of Boston. In Seattle a general strike shut down the city for five days. At the same time, the American branch of the Communist party was born, as was the Third International, which called for worldwide revolution.

To this combustible mixture, real fire was applied by parties unknown. A bomb was mailed to the former senator Thomas Hardwick of Georgia and blew off the hands of the maid who opened the package. Then, in the New York post office, sixteen similar parcels were identified, each containing explosives and destined for an honor list that included Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. (There was also a bomb attempt against Morgan’s office in Wall Street, but that was not until autumn of 1920.) A month after May Day, marked by riots that disrupted “Red” parades in several cities, more bombs were detonated in the homes of officials in Cleveland, Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh. Palmer’s Washington residence was targeted, but the assassin accidentally blew himself into unidentifiable fragments before reaching the Attorney General’s front door.

REIGN OF TERROR PLANNED, ran one typical headline; PLANS FOR VIOLENCE AND MURDER, another proclaimed. The nation braced for a Fourth of July uprising that never materialized. But in November police raided the Russian People’s House, the New York headquarters of a pro-Soviet organization, and declared that they found “material for 100 bombs” there. RED BOMB LABORATORY FOUND, said the next day’s Times . Convinced (like the Bolsheviks themselves) that revolution was imminent, Palmer’s Department of Justice struck back. On December 21 it deported 249 foreign-born alleged anarchists to Russia (including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, who had in fact tried to kill the industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892). Then, in a sweeping nationwide series of raids on January 2, 1920, more than 4,000 suspected radicals were rounded up, detained under appalling conditions, questioned, and sometimes beaten up. A relative handful suffered deportation; the rest were released without apology or redress. Most newspapers reacted with satisfaction. The Washington Evening Star said that the raids were justified by a threat that was “no mere scare, no phantom of heated imagination.” The Post agreed: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty.”

The Attorney General was targeted, but the assassin blew himself into unidentifiable fragments near the A.G.’s door.

The Red scare of 1919-20 eventually faded away. That of 1948-53, the first of the Cold War, was primarily sparked by fear of espionage—treason by stealth, rather than by violence. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the old anxieties were rekindled by such bloody events as the kidnappings and murders organized by Italy’s Red Brigades, the hijackings of planes on international air routes, indiscriminate shoot-outs in airports serving Tel Aviv and Rome, the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games, and the attempted assassination of the pope. The Soviet Union was seen as the instigator of a good deal of this mayhem, but now, with the Cold War ended, it is the “Islamic fundamentalist” who holds that ever-ready, lethally hissing, globeshaped bomb of folk memory.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. Terrorist attacks are genuine and often despicable crimes, no less so for being described by their authors as political acts. The criminals deserve maximum punishment if convicted after fair trials under American standards of justice. And reasonable police vigilance to prevent the recurrence of such horrors as the World Trade Center bombing is justified.

Yet I can’t forgo a certain wariness. I note the way in which our own government condemns regimes that sponsor terrorism but looks the other way when diplomatic convenience so dictates, not to mention how conveniently certain nations can dismiss an entire nationalist movement because some of its adherents advocate terror.

Closer to home, I would hope that Americans do not need reminding that not all Muslims are fundamentalists, and not all fundamentalists are fanatics and killers. The loose and lordly journalistic use of these terms gives me some concern. So far, happily, there have been no witch hunts. But history, properly studied, provides the raw material of both idealism and skepticism, and it will not harm the legitimate condemnation of terrorism to remember that the term itself is potentially dangerous when tossed around lightly. Sort of like a loaded bomb, you might say.

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