Terrorism Revisited

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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.