Terrorism Revisited

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“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.