[Photo of 1920 Wall Street bombing. Credit to Bettman/Corbis and The National]
David Wallace-Wells, writing in the February 16 issue of Newsweek magazine, discusses terrorism in the United States; the anarchists involved and their rationale; our kinship with them; and how we've responded to them historically.
While "the history of anarchist terrorism does not deliver to us today any guidance in the practical defense of a liberal society, nor any lessons in counter-terrorism," it is important we remember that history for other reasons, as we shall see.
Wallace-Wells describes the "first car-bomb," which was actually a wagon loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron slugs which was blown up "at the start of the noon lunch hour at the busiest corner in New York's financial district" on a September morning in 1920.
"...the explosion killed 39, wounded hundreds more and remained, until the Oklahoma City bombing, the worst terrorist attack in American history."
Actually, however, "our first encounter with terrorism ... stretched for several decades on either side of the turn of the 20th century, when radicals of many stripes, horrified by the brutality of industrial capitalism and outraged at the state power that supported it, took up arms against the men they believed their oppressors, bombing symbols of civic order, staging assassinations of civic leaders and embracing a cult of violence that condoned any death produced by the struggle."
Thus, a bomb at Chicago's Haymarket resulted in 8 dead policemen, and a number of workers. In the offices of the Los Angeles Times, dynamite killed 21 workers and injured many more. Anarchists mailed 30 bombs to American politicos, journalists and businessmen in April of 1919, geared to blow on May Day. Wallace-Wells says most never arrived "because of insufficient postage."
Anarchist terror spread around the world. "Anarchists assassinated Russia's tsar in 1898, the French president in 1894 and the Spanish prime minister in 1897. They killed the empress of Austria-Hungary in 1898 and U.S. President William McKinley in 1901. Italy's King Umberto I, who had survived an 1878 attempt on his life, said that he considered the threat of assassination a 'professional risk.' In 1900 they got him, too."
Wallace-Wells suggests that we have more in common with the anarchists than we might like to believe.
He describes them thusly: "These men and women," he says, "were atheists, though they had romantic notions of duty and sacrifice, they celebrated the values of liberty and equality. They considered themselves, rightfully, descendants of the Enlightenment and heirs to the French Revolution. They decried the damage done by modern society to the autonomy and worth of the individual, even as they casually killed dozens of individuals in large symbolic attacks. They were motivated by a sense of injustice, not indignity, and their cause seems to us today a familiar if quixotic protest against the growth of the shape-shifting liberal order under which we still live today."
Then Wallace-Wells makes his point:
"That order is not weakened but strengthened by the memory of turmoil." We need to remember. The history of anarchistic terrorism is important, for:
It calls to mind the fact "that though we live in a dangerous era, it is not a uniquely dangerous one, and that Enlightenment values have triumphed over terroristic ones before, not by defeating but by absorbing them through progressive legislation, unionization, rising wages and the formalization of civil liberties." [Emphasis mine]
That is a critical sentence. The Bushites wanted us to believe that our era was so dangerous we must give up our Enlightenment values; regressive legislation was the order of the day; breaking up the unions was and remains a Republican goal; rising wages were only for the rich; and who gave a damn about civil liberties or our Constitution when, as Bush and company reminded us over and over again, we were under attack.
I think it's precisely this overt willingness to chuck Enlightenment values that prompted Barack Obama to run for president and was the impetus for his slogan about bringing change to America.
The history of anarchistic terrorism is also important for us to remember as we are faced with increasing cries by the Religious Right, the fundamentalist christianist wingnuts, that our salvation is to be found in the God of the Bible as they understand that God, and the Laws of the Bible as they interpret those laws. Many of these people are dominionists and reconstructionists (like Sarah Palin), and are determined to replace our Enlightenment values with their own perverted religious values.
That's why the Religious Right hates Obama (and that hatred has become intense and unrelenting on christianist wingnut websites!). He represents the values they feel threatened by: progressive legislation, unionization, rising wages and the formalization of civil liberties.
And that's why the Republican Party will not work with Obama and will do everything in its power to destroy Obama. Their values are represented by regressive legislation, breaking up the unions, keeping wages low, and the denial of civil liberties.
That's also why we must remember the history. Not because we revere the anarchists, but to remind ourselves that our values have been derived, not from the Bible nor from a god, but from the Enlightenment and the rule of reason. And, in fact, these are the values upon which our nation was founded.
To reiterate: Wallace-Wells reminds us that we have triumphed over terroristic values before, not by defeating them but by absorbing them through programs and policies built upon the values of the Enlightenment.
Maybe we can do it again.