Terrorism: We’ve Been Down this Road Before — and Won
The spectacular terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris three years ago bring to the fore yet again just how vulnerable we are to such danger and the need to react — but not overreact.
“When groups of men here and there in American cities adopt the theory that their function is to scatter through society firebrands, arrows, and death, with no other purpose than that society shall be overthrown, there is simply nothing to do but to turn on these people and crush them. Society must not harbor its own avowed destroyers; it must stamp them out.”
No, this is not Trump or fellow travelers bellowing a call to arms to wipe out domestic jihadi terrorists. Nor is it a sense of the Congress resolution fired off by the Freedom Caucus. It appeared in 1901 in a popular magazine, one of many such editorials following the assassination of President William McKinley and years-long acts of indiscriminate political violence throughout the country and in Europe. The perpetrators: anarchists.
It is now beyond living memory, but in the decades of the late 19th century through the post-World War I era militant anarchists held much of the western world in the grip of fear and anxiety as they bombed and shot their way across the map in pursuit of a radical ideology. To achieve their vision of a society free of government control, many anarchists carried out “propaganda of the deed,” that is, spreading their principles through actions as well as words. These acts centered on violence.
Between 1881 and 1921, anarchists managed to kill ten heads of state or government, a success rate of 50 percent. Victims included the kings of Italy, Belgium, Portugal and Greece; three Spanish prime ministers; the presidents of the United States, France and Russia; an Austrian empress; and a Russian tsar and prime minister. There were no fewer than three failed assassination attempts against Russian monarchs during these years. An anarchist bomb set off in the Barcelona Opera House in 1893 killed over twenty and injured fifty others. “It would seem at times as if the whole world is one madhouse,” declared the New York Call after anarchists bombed Wall Street in 1920.
France particularly became a hot bed of anarchist violence. Shouting “Death to bourgeois society and long live anarchy!” the anarchist Auguste Vaillant hurled a nail bomb into the French National Assembly in late 1893. While no one was killed, Vaillant was dispatched to the guillotine following a quick trial. Avenging his comrade’s execution, fellow anarchist Émile Henry exploded a bomb near the Gare Saint-Lazare train station in Paris, killing one and injuring twenty. When asked at his trial why he aimed to harm so many innocent people, Henry proclaimed, “There is no innocent bourgeois.” He followed his friend to the guillotine, shouting , “We who hand out death know how to take it.” Then in mid-1894, Italian anarchist Sante Caserio, seeking revenge for Vaillant and Henry, fatally stabbed French president Sadi Carnot. The guillotine also greeted Caserio. These men were inspired by an earlier anarchist, Louise Michel, known popularly as the “Red Virgin.” Given to wearing men’s military uniforms, she was an ardent, diehard anarcho-feminist. Michel got off with a lighter sentence: exile to New Caledonia where she got involved in a native uprising against French colonial rule. The anarchist movement welcomed many women into its fold.
To finance their operations, some anarchists turned to brigandry. The most notorious was the Bonnot Gang. Teetotaling vegetarians who ruthlessly gunned down cashiers, chauffeurs and policemen in a crime spree across France and Belgium during 1911–1912, they pioneered the car getaway. Their m.o. was to inflict as much violence as they could and when cornered, be shot or blow their own brains out rather than be captured. They kept the French capital in a state of terror for half a year. The gang’s head, Jules Bonnot, held off some 500 policemen and soldiers from a house in a suburb of Paris until the authorities dynamited it. Bonnot survived by wrapping himself between mattresses. In the ensuing gun battle, it took ten rounds to bring the anarchist down — though it took another day until he died. Weeks later, law enforcement tracked down the gang’s co-leader, Octave Garnier, and an accomplice in another Paris suburb. The pair held off over a thousand security personnel in an intense gun battle until, at 2:00am and exasperated, the police chief blew up the building in which the two were holed up. Garnier was killed instantly, but the accomplice survived the blast, shooting at the police until taken down in a flurry of bullets.
French authorities methodically took down the gang, member-by-member, but not without collateral damage. Surviving Bonnot operatives received punishment ranging from imprisonment to the guillotine. Those who faced Le Rasoir National went defiantly, belting out curses like “Damn the masters, damn the slaves, and damn me!”
Gang members came from the working class. Their wanton violence turned off many of the movement’s educated theoreticians. One of the latter commented, “I saw the whole of the movement…dragged into the scum of society by a kind of madness. And nobody could do anything about it, least of all myself… It was like a collective suicide.”
While anarchist violence in the U.S. was not on the same scale as in Europe, it was nonetheless significant to the point that it triggered severe government countermeasures as well as tightening up on immigration.
A leading anarchist, Luigi Galleani, an Italian immigrant in New Jersey, published the recipe for making nitroglycerine in a bomb-making manual in 1905. This, and the ready availability of dynamite provided the instruments of ill for the anarchists’ will to destroy national institutions. The movement’s star bomb maker, Mario Buda, is alleged to have caused the deaths of dozens, including nine police officers, and injuries of hundreds in the U.S. Buda died peacefully under an alias at 78 in his native Italy, never having been brought to trial for his misdeeds.
In 1892, an anarchist tried to kill industrialist and union buster Henry Clay Frick during the Homestead strikes. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo in 1901. In 1910, anarchists blew up the Los Angeles Times building, killing 21. In October and November, 1914, Galleanists exploded bombs in New York City. In 1916, ten persons were killed and 40 injured by a suitcase bomb at San Francisco’s Preparedness Day parade, the worst act of terrorism in that city’s history. Nine policemen and a bystander were killed in Milwaukee in 1917 reputedly by a Mario Buda-made time bomb left at a Catholic church. In April 1919, authorities uncovered an anarchist plot to mail 36 letter bombs to prominent Americans, including J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
In June, 1919 bombs went off in Paterson, NJ, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Washington, DC. The explosion in the capital damaged the homes of Assistant Navy Secretary Franklin Roosevelt and Attorney General Palmer, who, in response, launched the infamous “Palmer Raids” during the first “Red Scare” in the aftermath of World War I. Thousands were arrested and hundreds deported often with scant attention to due process of law.
At noon on Sept. 16, 1920, a horse cart loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron weights was set off by remote control on Wall St., killing 38 and maiming hundreds more. It was the worst terrorist bombing in the United States until the Oklahoma City attack in 1995 and the worst in New York until the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The Washington Post denounced the Wall St. bombing as an “act of war.” Later in that decade, anarchists bombed the U.S. embassy and two U.S.-owned banks in Bueno Aires.
Ongoing urban terrorism spanning over four decades stoked a fear that fed into a surging nativist sentiment. Anarchist ranks were heavily populated with immigrants from Italy and Central Europe. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a growth spurt during these years, attracting new members with its anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic message. Working class rural white males were particularly receptive. Politicians and the press responded to this growing nativism. “The bomb outrage in New York emphasizes the extent to which the alien scum from the cesspools and sewers of the Old World has polluted the clear spring of American democracy,” wrote The Washington Post. President Wilson denounced hyphenated Americans who he said had “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” The respected Albany Law Review referred to immigrants as “long-haired, wild-eyed, bad smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches.”
A spate of restrictive immigration legislation ensued. Bills passed in 1903 and 1918 explicitly barred anarchists from entering the United States. Legislation in 1921 and 1924 greatly reduced the numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
Domestic measures, however, overreached. Spurred by the first Red Scare, the Sedition Act of 1918 curbed freedom of speech and expression, specifically certain criticism of the government. The mass arrests and deportations of the Palmer Raids of 1919–1921 were subsequently seen as being unconstitutional. Anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for their beliefs rather than criminal actions. With its own lois scélérates (“villainous laws”), France broadly curbed freedom of expression as well. Subsequent popular reaction against central government over-reaction in both countries eventually led to retraction of the measures. Derision against Attorney General Palmer cost him a shot at the 1920 presidential election.
Parallels between that era’s events and those of today are striking: A diffuse terrorist movement whose hard core killers steadfastly pursue an insane ideology involving merciless attacks against ordinary citizens for shock value. France and the U.S. top their target list. Operatives ensconce themselves in immigrant communities whose peaceful members are stigmatized as “The Other” by an increasingly xenophobic public. And politicians pander to the fears.
In attacking the West, ISIL, as with the anarchists of a century ago, appears increasingly to rely on ideologically driven home grown cells as well as lone wolves to terrorize, mobilize, polarize: terrorize to cow civilians and force their governments “to make rash decisions that they otherwise would not choose.” Mobilize followers through shock and awe tactics as in the November 2015 Paris attacks. Polarize by alienating citizens from those who govern them. Both movements pursued a strategy of instigating a cycle of protests-repression-protests-insurrection.
The anarchists eventually failed, victims of vigorous governmental suppression, loss of their support base, and their own internal contradictions, ideological as well strategic. But the movement wreaked havoc and death for a good four decades before it fizzled out.
It may require equally as long to defeat Islamist terrorism. It will take patience, persistence and resistance to fear. A lesson to be learned from the anarchist-active years is for governments to resist over-reacting by curbing civil freedoms and immigration. Such measures eventually trigger public reaction and sully the nation’s image before the world.
The United States risks veering toward over-reaction to the ISIL threat by blocking Syrian refugees, engendering distrust toward Muslim citizens and residents, militarizing its foreign policy and engaging in political demagoguery — among presidential candidates, but increasingly members of Congress as well. Lack of bold, principled leadership enables this to happen. The Brussels and Paris attacks nonetheless underscore the need to be vigilant and to act forcefully.
The president and other American leaders would be wise to take a page, ironically, from one of anarchism’s original leading thinkers, Mikhail Bakunin: “we must spread our principles, not with words, but with deeds.”
This essay first appeared in DIPLO DENIZEN