Culture

The First New York Terrorist Attack

One September morning in 1920, a horse-drawn wagon made its way along Wall Street in lower Manhattan, came to a stop in front of the J.P. Morgan building and exploded. The wagon, which has been called the world's first car bomb and was likely delivered by an Italian anarchist named Mario Buda, had been loaded with 100 pounds of dynamite and 500 pounds of cast-iron slugs. It was detonated, for maximum effect, at the start of the noon lunch hour at the busiest corner in New York's financial district; the explosion killed 39, wounded hundreds more and remained, until the Oklahoma City bombing, the worst terrorist attack in American history. You can still see the pockmarks made by the bomb in the building's façade, but, as Beverly Gage reminds us in "The Day Wall Street Exploded," the episode, and the age of terrorism that spawned it, has more or less disappeared from our national memory. The Morgan building doesn't even have a commemorative plaque.

Since the World Trade Center attacks 81 Septembers later, scholars and publishers have rushed to deliver histories of the West's sporadic, violent encounters with Islam. But comparatively little has been written about our first encounter with terrorism, which 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. When Czeslaw Milosz, contemplating the appeal of totalitarianism in Europe, wrote that he could not take the moral clarity of Americans seriously because the nation had never in the modern era seen its way of life interrogated by violence, he was invoking a terribly simplified history. Richard Hofstadter came closer when he wrote that Americans had a "remarkable lack of memory" for violence, and suggested that a single postwar generation of liberal consensus was enough to blind the country to decades of bloody turmoil, which had nevertheless left behind reminders for those who cared to look.

The Wall Street attack was the least of it. A bomb thrown at Chicago's Haymarket killed eight police and a still-unknown number of protesting workers; dynamite detonated in the offices of the Los Angeles Times killed 21 workers and injured hundreds more. In April 1919, anarchists mailed 30 bombs to prominent American politicians, businessmen and journalists, hoping they'd detonate on May Day. (Very few of the packages ultimately reached their targets, because of insufficient postage.) In each case the goal, as with the propagandistic Islamist terror a century later, was not simply to strike a blow against a hated power but to win the public's attention, to reveal the "true nature" of an ongoing struggle and to demonstrate to those more complacent than the terrorists themselves the vulnerability of the very social order that seemed to prohibit their brand of revolutionary violence. And in each case, what terrified the public was not simply the attacks themselves but the nihilistic network that lay, in shadows, behind them.

The specter was global—a loose transnational alliance that seemed to threaten the established order everywhere. As John Merriman shows in "The Dynamite Club," his new history of terrorism in fin de siècle Paris, the French 19th century was a near-constant, and very often violent, struggle between the forces of anarchism and the state. (The beloved travertine basilica Sacré-Coeur, a Parisian treasure today, was built as a reminder to radicals of the defeat of their Paris Commune by the French Third Republic.) Anarchists assassinated Russia's tsar in 1881, 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.

The similarities to today's Islamist terrorists make the comparison, Merriman writes, "irresistible." Like today's Islamists, who seek a restored caliphate unmolested by Western power and its Middle Eastern surrogates, the anarchists understood their cause as a defensive one, a response to expanding state power and industrial authority. Like the Islamists, the anarchist terrorists embraced violence as a form of "propaganda by the deed," and showed a real preference for spectacular and decisive action over the hard work of ideological contemplation and debate. (Some targets, like the Greenwich Observatory, revealed an absurdist, even Dadaist flair.) Like the anarchists, who never developed a coherent vision for a society without state power, the Islamists have expressed their goals only in the vaguest terms—so much so that the historian James Gelvin has argued that the restored caliphate is a vision not of an Islamic state but of a stateless expanse, and the Islamists not true religious crusaders but merely a new breed of anarchist.

And yet it is probably the dissimilarities between the two groups that are most striking, and that reveal our own striking kinship with the anarchist terrorists. Those men and women were atheists, and though they had romantic notions of duty and sacrifice, they celebrated the secular 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 largely 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. That order is not weakened but strengthened by the memory of turmoil. However striking the parallels to our own time, the history of anarchist terrorism does not deliver to us today any guidance in the practical defense of liberal society, nor any lessons in counterterrorism. But the history does remind us 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. These new books are reclamations of that tumultuous history and represent a kind of defense of the liberal imagination, reminders that the great eccentricity of our Enlightenment tradition has always been a mark of its strange vitality.

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