Terror on the Streets of New York, Take One

By Wallace-Wells, David | Newsweek, February 16, 2009 | Go to article overview

Terror on the Streets of New York, Take One


Wallace-Wells, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Wallace-Wells

The 20th century closed with a vicious bombing. We've largely forgotten about the one that opened it.

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 facade, 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. …

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