Dec 10, 2013
Tony Platt on Wall Street Terror Attack
Posted on Mar 13, 2009
By Tony Platt
The narrative arc of this book is very familiar: An unexpected terrorist attack takes place in September, targeting an important symbol of power in the heart of New York City; everyday people suffer tragic deaths; the media saturate the nation with images of mangled bodies and tales of heroism; there is an aftermath of recriminations, roundups and xenophobia, followed by acrimonious political debates that pit the need for security against protection of civil liberties.
Except the focus of this book is not on what we now know by shorthand as 9/11, but on the bombing on Wall Street that killed 38 people and wounded hundreds on Sept. 16, 1920—the single most dramatic act of political violence in this country until Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City 75 years later.
Despite its sensational title, Beverly Gage’s “The Day Wall Street Exploded: The Story of America in Its First Age of Terrorism” is a thoroughly documented work of investigative history and a corrective to the American tendency, in the words of Richard Hofstadter, to practice a “remarkable lack of memory.” Gage challenges the assumption widely expressed after 9/11 that “terrorism is something utterly new in the American experience, a horror without a past.” To illustrate this point, she focuses on the rise and fall of the American anarchist movement from the 1880s through the 1920s, and the state’s response to early 20th century radicalism, which talked up “propaganda by deed” and to back up its rhetoric made considerable use of dynamite, Alfred Nobel’s contribution to science in 1866.
Gage also tackles the analytical impasse created by right-wing depictions of anarchists as crazed bomb-throwers and left-wing apologies that portray anarchist radicals as romanticized victims of government conspiracies. “There were bombs and those who believed in bombs,” she argues, “and there was also scapegoating, stereotyping, and false accusation.”
“The Day Wall Street Exploded” revisits the first part of the 20th century as an important moment in the development of what historian William Preston Jr. called the “internal security state.” American historians have extensively explored the Red Scare, Palmer Raids, political deportations and anti-radical hysteria of the 1910s and 1920s; Gage’s original contribution is to witness these ominous events through the perspective of participants in radical organizations, and in the police and intelligence agencies that aspired not only to defeat the left but also to make anti-radicalism into “a litmus test for entry into American politics.”
Beverly Gage has turned her Columbia University dissertation—recipient of the prestigious Bancroft award in 2004—into an engaging first book. From her podium as an assistant professor of history at Yale, she is quickly making a reputation as a public intellectual, her opinions appearing in The New York Times Magazine, Slate and PBS’ “News Hour.” Recently recognized by the History News Network as a “top young historian,” Gage draws upon her journalism skills practiced at the New Haven Advocate to fashion a lively narrative, leavening solid research with deft prose and expressive sketches of her leading subjects. Occasionally style trumps substance as Gage tries to meet expectations of the book’s hype as “a thrilling historical detective saga,” but overall she succeeds in making a serious subject accessible to a broader audience.
The book is roughly divided into two parts: The first introduces us to the world of American anarchism, a product of the 19th century’s ferocious industrialization and class divide; the second to the architects of a modern system of law and order that shaped 20th century counterinsurgency.
Gage provides a portrait of the militant American left from the eruption of labor strikes in the 1880s to the Russian Revolution. We get sympathetic snapshots of all the key players and organizations: the anarchist leader Johann Most, who “helped to transform the neutral substance of dynamite into a great political symbol”; Emma Goldman, the “figurehead of American anarchism,” and her partner in militancy, Alexander Berkman; the labor leader Big Bill Haywood, “the American apostle of dynamite” who “projected a magnetism far beyond his physical frame”; and Sacco and Vanzetti, advocates of an “unabashedly revolutionary form of anarchism,” whose 1927 executions became an international cause célèbre. Gage also brings us inside the internal debates about the use of violence against commercial and political targets taking place within anarchist, Bolshevik and socialist organizations.
What’s missing from this U.S.-centered analysis, however, is an exploration of how the issue of political violence was viewed within mainstream labor, women’s and civil rights organizations. From reading Gage’s book you wouldn’t know, for example, that a huge debate was taking place within the contemporary African-American movement about whether or not violent self-defense was preferable to nonviolent protest. “I believe it would be better for the Negro’s soul to be seared with hate than dwarfed by self-abasement,” argued a black leader in the early 1920s.
Anarchism in the United States was never a mass or popular movement. In the mid-1880s, the country’s largest anarchist group had no more than 6,000 members, mostly German immigrants. And of these committed militants, notes Gage, only a few subscribed to tactics of “scorching vengeance.” Moreover, the violence of the left paled against the ruthless violence used by cops and private militias against striking workers, and the thousands of untimely deaths caused by unsafe working conditions in mines, mills and factories.
Yet, when revolutionaries turned to violence, the results were spectacular: the Haymarket bombing in Chicago in 1886 that left seven cops dead and 60 injured; the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901; the 1910 firebombing of the Los Angeles Times building; the 1916 bomb that killed 10 spectators at the Preparedness Day parade in San Francisco; and the 1919 bomb that sheared off the front of the house of the U.S. attorney general. In 1920, a group calling itself “American Anarchist Fighters” left leaflets near the site of the Wall Street explosion, demanding, “Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you.”
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