Magazine article History Today

9/11 ... 1910: Bernard Porter Points out Similarities and Contrasts between Terrorism Then and Now

Magazine article History Today

9/11 ... 1910: Bernard Porter Points out Similarities and Contrasts between Terrorism Then and Now

Article excerpt

THE PICTURE ON THIS PAGE shows an aircraft hi-jacked by anarchists and loaded with dynamite attacking the tallest New York skyscraper of its day. 'Ground zero' is in the foreground. The year is 1910. The peculiar shape of the aircraft is due to the fact that they have hardly beet invented yet. It is taken from George Glendon's The Emperor of the Air (1910), one of a number of sensational novel based on this kind of theme that carat out around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Similar illustrations abound. No London Bridge but Big Ben is seen to be falling down in E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist, or the Doom of a Great City, published in 1893 But set in 1920. Other novels of this genre--by the likes of Donald Mackay Fergus Hume and W.L. Alden-feature a Fenian 'super-gun' that cal bombard Britain from the eastern seaboard of America; bombs exploding on the London underground; anthrax bacilli put into the water systems of Britain's great cities: and a 'dirty bond)' that kills everyone in London without destroying buildings. Almost all the terrors that afflict us at the beginning of the present century, in fact, were anticipated in the cheap fiction of a hundred years ago.

Most of them, of course, were not meant seriously. Or the other hand, they reflected real fears. In 1894, for example, a London weekly paper claimed to have been tipped off by a Special Branch officer that the 'anthrax' scenario was genuine. In 1897 a real bomb exploded in an Inner Circle line train near Aldersgate station, though it was probably put there by an ex-employee with a grievance Another was discovered being manufactured in Walsall in 1892, and a third detonated accidentally in Greenwich Park in 1894, killing the anarchist who had been carrying it (Joseph Conrad's novel of 1907, The Secret Agent, was based on this affair.)

There were also some false alarms: 'bombs' that turned out to be a packet of Mazawattee tea in one case; a baby': feeding bottle left on a bus in another; and, in a third bomb shells stuffed with copies of a magazine and sent to government offices in 1894 in order to win a prize offered by the magazine for the most original way of advertising it, Nevertheless, it is easy to understand why people were alarmed. London had already suffered a number of genuine bomb incidents in the 1880s, the work of the 'Fenians', and was to experience a flurry of anarchist crimes in the 1900s. Abroad things were worse, with more than a dozen heads of stale and prominent politicians being assassinated in the 1890s, and bombs thrown into Paris pavement cards, religious processions, and a packed theatre auditorium in Barcelona in 1893--the Bali atrocity of its day. So fears were not the preserve of fiction: there was a real threat.

Some of the reasons behind the outrages and the anxiety were similar to today's. Anarchism was anti-capitalist--the reason lot the fictional attack on Wall Street--but also feared because of its fanatical disregard for innocent human life. That of course slandered the vast majority of peaceful anarchists. A second cause for concern was science, and the possibilities it had quite recently opened up for 'weapons of mass destruction': new explosives and chemicals, and the means of delivering them (like aircraft), that could put disproportionate power in the hands of small numbers of evil-doers, and render even the greatest empire vulnerable to disastrous attack. In Britain's case the Royal Navy in particular, her main line of national defence, was thought by some to be in danger of becoming obsolete in the face of attack from above the water and also below (by submarines, another innovation of the time).

This combination of fanaticism, amorality and huge destructive power was a new worry at the turn of the century, undermining people's sense of security in much the same way that the idea of nuclear or biological weapons in the hands of 'rogue' states or fanatical religious groups does today. …

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