Friday, October 30, 2009

Notes from the War on Terror, 1901

David Cole has an interesting review (subscription-only unfortunately) in the LRB of Moshik Temkin's recent book on the the Sacco-Vanzetti affair.

I was particularly intrigued, as, in the context of a research project on concerns about police powers and civil liberties in late 1920s Britain, I've been spending a lot of time reading the period's (British) newspapers.

The issues of the Daily Herald from 1927 were on my agenda in the last few weeks, so I ran across coverage of the remarkable attention--and anger--that the execution of the two men inspired, including large demonstrations in London. (Which, in their turn, raised complaints about heavy-handed policing.)

The degree of attention to the matter may have something to do with the source: the Herald was at this time owned by the Trades Union Congress and close to the Labour Party. It also, more-or-less consistently, expressed opposition to the death penalty.

(Another reference I ran across the other day was the Manchester Guardian's quotation of the Berliner Tageblatt dubbing the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti 'the spirit of the Cheka in a capitalist incarnation.')

In any case, I was struck by reading this paragraph in Cole's review of Temkin's book:

The trial took place after a co-ordinated series of bombings in 1919, attributed to Italian immigrant anarchists, had sparked a nationwide round-up of ‘radical aliens’. Federal officials, directed by a young J. Edgar Hoover, arrested between five and ten thousand foreign nationals in what came to be known as the ‘Palmer raids’, denied them access to lawyers, coerced confessions from them and ordered them to be deported, frequently on the grounds that they associated with Communist or anarchist groups. (None of the detainees was found guilty of the bombings.) Then, shortly after Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest, another bomb went off in Wall Street, killing 39 and injuring hundreds more – also apparently the work of militant anarchists. Anarchists were seen as a real threat, committed to violence and able and willing to carry it out.

There's nothing new here, of course. I dimly recall learning about the 'Palmer raids' in high school as well as about the post-war 'red scare', which offered premonitions of the one that followed the next war. (My history and social studies teachers were hippie liberals, so they emphasised those kinds of things.)

Still, there is something remarkable in thinking about this context: I would imagine that many Americans (and others) might find it surprising that only a few generations ago, the main terrorist threat to the nation--including several urban bombings--was seen to originate among 'militant anarchists' and the ethnic group with whom that threat was most associated were Italian.

(And I see a new book is out that makes such connections more broadly: Beverly Gage's The Day Wall Street Exploded.)

As Cole points out in his review, the domestic reaction to terrorism was followed--and alternatively praised or (more often) criticised from abroad--in ways that sound quite contemporary. (Cole's review actually opens with world reaction to the imprisonment of 'enemy combatants' at Guantánamo Bay.)

He cites, for example, H. G. Wells's critical articles published in the New York Times condemning a distinct 'American mindset' that allowed the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Angry letters flooded into the Times, which refused to publish any further articles. Wells responded, asserting the right of those in one nation to criticise those in another:

The world becomes more and more one community, and the state of mind of each nation has practical reactions upon all the rest that were undreamt of half a century ago. The administration of justice in Massachusetts or Italy concerns me almost as much as . . . in London or Glasgow. Particularly when the lives of aliens are involved . . . The world becomes my village . . . part of me walks down Main Street and defies all America to expel it.

Cole points out that Wells himself--like some other international critics--had offered a blanket condemnation on the basis of the case (which had outraged many Americans); still, regardless of the merits of the case (or Wells's intervention), I'm struck, as ever by the distinctive mix of the familiar and the strange apparent in discussions from the early twentieth century.

On that note, the LRB review reminded me of an article I had found in the course of my project, published in the Scotsman in 1901 in the wake of the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz at an exhibition in Buffalo, New York.

It's rather long, though I've edited out various bits to try to shorten it. (And I have added paragraph breaks.)

Still, I think it's worth posting, as it's fascinating on many counts, not least for the atmosphere it evokes of panic, vengeance, suspicion and confusion that followed McKinley's assassination.

(It is also the earliest use I've found in any British sources of the originally American phrase 'the third degree', in the sense of the use of violence or intimidation in police questioning. But if you happen to know of an earlier one, I'd be pleased to know.)


New York, September 14.

We are in a quandary. We do not know what to do about the dreaded Anarchists. As the Yankees say when things are at their worst, we are in a ‘state of mind.’ In the past week everybody of any consequence has spoken on the subject, but one can recognise only the confusion of tongues. The New York ‘Herald’ has interviewed nearly all the statesmen in the country, from Cabinet Ministers and Senators to Governors and Representatives, demanding an answer to the perplexing question, ‘What is to be done?’

The editors of many thousands of newspapers and the preachers in thousands of pulpits have set out their clashing opinions. Everybody has been ready to make a red-hot speech anywhere on the all-engrossing theme. ‘Crush the Anarchists,’ Drive them all out of the country,’ Shut them all up in the madhouse,’ ‘Put them into dungeons,’ ‘Torture them,’ ‘Lynch them as blacks are lynched’—such are among the innumerable frenzied outcries that have rent the air since Friday of last week.

The more rational people desire that law shall somehow be brought to bear against the Anarchists; the more irrational want to see them tortured or crucified in some one of the ways described by the Chinese Minister as customary in China. It may seem surprising that much of the cruelest language has been uttered by clergymen. Almost the only reasonable newspaper in this city has been the leading financial organ, the ‘Evening Post.’

The most terrorising revelation of the past week has been that made by the thousands of Government and police and private detectives engaged in ‘unearthing Anarchists.’ Every day these parties give the papers stories about the Anarchist hordes that lurk in all parts of the country; every day they tell of ‘plots, conspiracies and mysteries.’ Chicago has a ‘nest of Anarchists,’ and there are such ‘nests,’ not only in New York and other large cities, but in smaller places, such as Paterson, Buffalo, Cleveland, M’Keesport, Detroit, Indianapolis, Wheeling, Haverhill, and many others. The ‘sleuths,’ as secret service agents are called, have a great time now in ‘rounding up’ the Anarchists everywhere; the whole police force of this city are under orders to round up all they can see.

Most people had until this time supposed that there were very few characters of that kind in the country; the but the sleuths are earning money, and frightening the Italians and the Jews by discovering rampant battalions of them. It will be said that there were plenty of these sleuths ‘guarding’ the President at Buffalo, but it was not until after Mr McKinley had been shot that they began to display their talents. The truth is that they are mostly clumsy humbugs, who hardly ever ‘detect’ anything at the proper time, but who are sure to be wildly active after they have been discomfited. [...]

It is hard to say what can be done to prevent violence on the part of Anarchists here. The best and most practicable suggestion yet made is that the existing law be turned against those of them who violate it in any way. The enforcement of the law would surely be more effective than popular vengeance, more so even than lynching under the direction of those crazy clerics who have advocated it.

The New York ‘Herald’ of the day before yesterday told a hideous tale of the torturing of Czolgosz in his cell at Buffalo by police agents, who were determined to get from him such a confession as they desired; they were ordered to subject him to what is called the ‘third degree,’ but, according to the ‘Herald,’ they intensified it tenfold, without success. The insensate men who have been crying for the torture or execution of all Anarchists as a sure means of putting an end to Anarchism are ignorant of the nature of the thing to be dealt with. The Anarchist who shot the President foresaw his own doom, and was ready to give his life for the ‘cause.’ Ordinary murderers are subject to punishment or execution, but this does not put an end to murder. [...]

Within a day or two the frenzy in the community on the President’s account has abated, and everybody seems to be willing now that his assailant shall have a legal trial. It is well for the honour of the country and its good name. Reason is regaining its ascendancy; the newspapers are growing more calm; and even the preachers of lynching are curbing their tongues.

Nowadays, there are about as many detectives as speculators in the Wall Street quarter. The apprehension of danger among the financial magnates has been keen for a week past; they know of threats against them. There must be as many as fifty ‘sleuths’ guarding the life of Mr Morgan, watching his business offices, following him wherever he goes, and never losing sight of him until he sails off in his yacht. [...]

Possibly as many as a hundred terror-struck persons, the recipients of threatening letters are under special protection against assassination. It is feared that there are men, other than Anarchists, ready to imitate the example of Czolgosz, men whose reason is affected by the daily diatribes against plutocracy by the ‘yellow’ organs and orators.

Strangers in the Wall Street district have had unpleasant experiences this week; they speedily become conscious that they are under suspicion, and are watched by armed men, and had better not loiter near the offices of a number of leading financiers. A wandering Scot, fresh from Glasgow, who turned up there yesterday, looked so much like an Anarchist that two sleuths were ordered to keep their eyes on him; he got safely to his hotel. [...]

The loose use of the dreaded word ‘Anarchist’ in this country is a piece of folly. In the Presidential campaign of last year, for example, the McKinleyite speech-makers and newspapers constantly characterised and denounced millions of Bryanites as ‘Anarchists,’ and the word became so familiar in politics that it lost its proper meaning, while one could often hear peaceful citizens proclaim that they were ‘Bryan Anarchists.’ It seemed to me foolish to throw the word at the Democratic head till it ceased to be alarming.

There is no doubt that one of the things that has most seriously frightened the conservative interests of the country during the past week has been the prospect of Vice-President Roosevelt’s succession to the Presidency. Mr Roosevelt has done so many indiscreet things, has stultified himself so often, and has roared so loudly during the few years of his career as a politician, office-holder, ‘Rough Rider,’ cowboy, sportsman, and stump-speaker that he has but little reputation for sound sense and no reputation at all for statesmanship, or even political acumen. [...]

On account of his belligerent disposition there has seemed to be danger that he would fall foul of some other Government, or get this country into trouble of some kind. ... I know much about Mr Roosevelt, who likes to be compared with the wide-awake German Kaiser, and I feel it safe to say that as a ruler he would be no more disposed to belligerency than is William II. An American President is, after all has been said, pretty closely hedged in.

It is a curious fact that as soon as Mr McKinley had been shot, the question one heard on every side and in all quarters was—‘How will it affect Wall Street?’ or ‘Do you think it will break the market?’ or, ‘Has it knocked stocks down?’ or something of that kind. For a moment it seemed to paralyse the moneyed giants of the stock market; but, as all the world knows, they immediately joined hands and forces, making a combination of interests by which, with the help of the Government, a crash was prevented. At the hour of this writing there is news from Buffalo that is not invigorating, but the situation may be more satisfactory to-morrow. One Anarchist, or a hundred Anarchists, cannot upset this country.

The Scotsman, 23 September 1901, p. 7

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