“The Anarchist Riot in Chicago,” from Harper's Weekly, May 15, 1886 (Library of Congress).

Fear Tactics

A History of Domestic Terrorism

On September 16th, 1920, a bomb exploded on Wall Street as workers took their lunch break. The explosion killed 38 people and injured hundreds. The targets? What today we’d call “the one percent”—powerful financiers who ran J.P. Morgan & Co. The Wall Street attack remained the deadliest terrorist bombing in the U.S. until Oklahoma City in 1995. But at the time, people saw it as just one more bombing in a long string of anarchist attacks.

As Americans wrestle with the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and as we observe the 14th anniversary of terror attacks on New York and Washington, BackStory returns to our episode on domestic terrorism. What are the origins of domestic terrorism in the United States? And what kinds of people and movements have been labeled as “terrorist?” Brian, Ed, Peter and their guests explore the relationship between terror and the state and ask when, if ever, terrorism is justified.

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**This is a transcription of an earlier broadcast of this episode, there may be slight differences in language in this rebroadcast.**

PETER: This is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf. In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, Americans are debating what the government response should be. It’s a question with deep roots extending at least back to the early 20th century.

BEVERLY GAGE: There were politicians who said, some bad person committed this bad criminal act, and we are going to bring that person to justice through the courts. But then there are people who say, actually, what we need is a kind of ideological war.

PETER: But around the same time, officials essentially shrugged off a different kind of terrorism. Lynching was almost never prosecuted, even when it was photographed.

AMY WOOD: What’s kind of extraordinary is the papers noted that no members of the mob could be identified, when this photograph was then made into a postcard and circulated around town after the lynching.

PETER: A history of domestic terrorism, today on BackStory. Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts. Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh, and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hello.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf’s with us.

PETER: Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN: And we’re going to start our show today with an act of terrorism that may sound a little familiar to anyone who’s been following the news from Boston these past few weeks. It was September 16, 1920.

BEVERLY GAGE: It was a fairly ordinary day. Weather was pretty nice.

PETER: This is Beverly Gage, an historian at Yale University.

BEVERLY GAGE: And at some point that morning, a horse-drawn cart rolled up next to the Morgan Bank at the corner of Wall and Broad.

PETER: At noon, the bells of Trinity Church began tolling. The carriage was still parked there at the street corner.

BEVERLY GAGE: And at exactly 12:01, just as many people are beginning to leave their offices in the financial district for lunch, the wagon explodes into the crowd.



BRIAN: It was a massive explosion. Sheets of flame flashed across the street. Nearby buildings trembled.

BEVERLY GAGE: People feel it even a mile or two north. So as far up as Union Square, people hear the noise. They feel the shudder.

BRIAN: Skyscraper windows crumbled and fell, scattering shards of glass across the street. The roar of falling glass reminded one survivor of Niagara Falls.

BEVERLY GAGE: And within about five minutes, 38 people had been killed and several hundred had been wounded and were lying, dying and bleeding in the street.

BRIAN: And the supposed targets of this attack, if they were JP Morgan or if they were government agencies, were they prepared for this? Were they sitting around worrying about this? Were they on code– did they have color codes in those days?

BEVERLY GAGE: There was no color coding. But one of the things that was the most interesting to me when I began to look at this event was that people on Wall Street, their response was of course shock and horror and indignation and a desire to figure out who the perpetrators were. And yet people were also saying, ugh, well we should have seen this coming.

This is so familiar to us. This is so expected. And that response proved to me to be one of the most interesting paths to go down. Why did this seem so inevitable? Why did it seem so kind of predictable and familiar in ways that I didn’t initially understand as a historian?

BRIAN: The reason we called up Beverly Gage in the first place is that we wondered how Americans in the past understood terrorism. How did they experience it in their own tongue? Because despite the feeling that a lot of us had when we heard about the Boston Marathon bombing, is this is really happening here, there’s a long history of this kind of violence in America.

ED: So for the rest of the hour today, we’re looking how Americans have experienced terrorism on US soil. Later in the show, we’ll really dig into what we mean and have meant when we use the word terrorism. But let’s return now to Brian’s interview with historian Beverly Gage.

BRIAN: That bombing on Wall Street we were talking about was never really pinned down definitively to anybody, not one group, not one individual. The best guess was that it was retaliation for the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti. Those were the famous anarchists who would eventually be found guilty of murder and then executed. And the backdrop to all of this, says Gage, is the so-called Red Scare, when a lot of people still thought that the Bolshevik Revolution was headed for America next.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s the absolutely critical context for understanding kind of the ways people respond to this bombing, why they understand it in the ways that they do, who they’re looking at as targets.

BRIAN: So why did it seem so predictable in retrospect?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, I think there are really two things that ended up coming together in the Wall Street bombing. And the first was a very long history of people not liking Wall Street. So almost from the moment that Wall Street became the center of American finance in the 19th century, you had all sorts of political movements who were denouncing it as a kind of den of corruption, as something that was distorting the American economy, creating these big fortunes. And a lot of that had been really ramped up during the First World War, which people said was a war that we engaged in to protect JP Morgan’s billions of dollars lent to Europe.

So I think you had that strain of things. And then the other was the fact of terrorism itself. That for the last 50 years, Americans had grown quite used to a kind of dramatic series of left-wing violent attacks on the symbols of capital and government, everything from the assassination of presidents to the bombing of the Los Angeles Times in 1910 to a whole series of violent episodes which I think people have largely forgotten about, but that people who lived through them knew very well.

BRIAN: Tell me, what does the profile of a terrorist look like to, let’s say, a police officer on the beat in 1919? What would the Justice Department, what would their sense of what a terrorist looks like be? Or are they even thinking about that?

BEVERLY GAGE: They are absolutely thinking about it. Terrorism was often associated, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, with the anarchist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. And then as ideas about this kind of violence began to emerge in the United States in particular, you were often thinking– again, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, about various kinds of European immigrants. So in particular, Italian immigrants or people who were coming from Eastern Europe and Russia in particular, where of course you just had the Bolshevik Revolution, and you have a pretty long-standing tradition of violent revolutionary conflict.

BRIAN: Right. I want to take us back to the day after the bombing. And I’m curious to know how the bank responded, how the police responded, how did the Department of Justice respond.

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, the response on Wall Street was really pretty extraordinary. So the bombing happened on a Thursday afternoon. And it shut down the financial markets immediately. And then you saw a sort of ripple effect throughout the country. The exchanges in Chicago and ultimately all the way out to San Francisco, they all shut down. The financial markets for the day are closed.

Then you’ve got this huge cleanup effort and rescue effort. They bring in government troops from Governors Island, which was right nearby. So you’ve got this military presence. Wall Street is under lockdown. You’ve got all of these victims being taken to the hospitals.

And then you have this conversation on Wall Street about what to do. And they decide that the financial markets absolutely have to reopen the next day. And in fact, they decide that the financial markets are going to go up. And in 1920, it’s actually really within the power of figures at the Morgan Bank and other financial institutions, a fairly small club of people involved here, to really make this happen.

BRIAN: They could make the market– I mean, when they said they’re gonna go up–


BRIAN: They meant it.

BEVERLY GAGE: Exactly. And so this is pretty much what they do. They have building inspectors who come and make sure that the buildings are stable. They put out a call for all of their employees, even if you’ve been injured, if you were able-bodied, to come into work the next day in a show of defiance and solidarity. And all of the markets and the financial institutions of the district reopen at 9:00 AM. There are these incredible images of financial district workers coming in off the subways and the train lines with their arms in slings or on crutches or looking kind of shell-shocked and coming back to work and getting Wall Street functioning. And in effect, the market goes up quite a lot.

BRIAN: So are they able to just to move on? Because this is the private sector. This is a private sector that literally can make the stock market go up if it wants to. Or to put it another way, could any politician take that same position of just moving on? Or is that simply something that the private sector, which does not have to get reelected, can do?

BEVERLY GAGE: Well, that’s an interesting question. Actually, you saw this very similar debate on a much smaller scale to the sorts of debates that we’ve seen post 9/11 in the sense that there were politicians who said, look, some bad person committed this bad criminal act, and we are going to find that person, and we are going to bring that person to justice through the courts, and that that’s the way that we should be handling this. Now of course, they ultimately failed to do that, which was a problem. But then there are people who say, no, actually what we need is a kind of ideological war against anarchism, against radicalism, against all of these bigger isms.

BRIAN: Now what about the government response? I know that somebody who you’re writing a book about right now, J. Edgar Hoover, had a bit of a response to this. Tell me what J. Edgar Hoover’s role in all of this was.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s right. J. Edgar Hoover is there as a very young man, just 24 years old. He has been brought in in August of 1919, so about a year before the Wall Street bombing, to head up this new division of the Bureau of Investigation called, initially, the Radical Division, which was supposed conduct surveillance of political radicals. And then they decided that was a little too explicit. So then a few months later, they renamed it the General Intelligence Division, though its function was still basically to investigate political radicals. And it was actually one of the first times that the federal government in peacetime is engaged in doing this in a concerted way.

And so he’s there in the background, and he actually ends up being the one who helps to coordinate this whole investigation at the federal level, this ultimately failed investigation at the federal level. And I do think that it becomes something of a learning moment for him. First, there’s a lot of backlash against the sorts of things, the deportation raids, et cetera, that he helped to engineer in that moment.

And secondly, I think the bombing itself becomes an example of failure for him, end of having this really high-profile event that you actually, ultimately fail to solve. And he realizes in that moment how actually how important it is. If you say you’re going to figure out what’s going on, you darn well better do it. And it is this kind of searing moment of shaping his political outlook.

BRIAN: Right. So at the very moment that Wall Street is saying, never mind, we’re getting on with our business, there in the bowels of the Department of Justice, really the seeds of a national internal security mechanism for the first time is growing.

BEVERLY GAGE: That’s absolutely true. And that, ultimately, I think, is one of the most interesting things to realize how many of the institutions that are still shaping our debates about terrorism were born out of that World War I, post-war moment. Both the ACLU and the FBI really enter this arena during that moment.

BRIAN: Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University. She’s the author of The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of america in its First Age of Terror.

ED: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, John Brown. Terrorist, freedom fighter, or both in some way?

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. Don’t go away.


BRIAN: This is BackStory, the show that turns to history to untangle the America of today. I’m Brian Balogh, your 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, the 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, your 18th Century Guy.

BRIAN: Today on our show, we’re looking at the history of the kind of violence that today we call terrorism.

PETER: And we started off with a look at the Wall Street bombing of 1920. Back then, Americans’ idea of the terrorist was the bomb-throwing anarchist. Now, of course, terrorism’s meaning is much broader.

BRIAN: So before we go any farther, let’s say quickly what that meaning is. There are a lot of different definitions and a lot of disagreements about what counts and what doesn’t. But there are some basics most experts, at least, agree on. Peter, check them off for us.

PETER: Well, terrorism uses violence or the threat of violence. Its goals are political in some sense. It’s meant to frighten people beyond the immediate targets of the attack. And it’s carried out by what the experts call non-state actors. Which is to say violence done by governments is generally not considered terrorism.

ED: Now that’s what the experts say. But as we were preparing this show, a lot of people posted comments on our website about that last part of the definition, the part about government actions not counting as terrorism. One person brought up the Allied terror bombings during World War II, which targeted civilians in Germany and Japan. Another wondered if the Boston Massacre might have been terrorism. And once we started thinking about the relationship between terror and the state, well, we realized that there is in fact a pretty complicated history there. So we’re going to take a couple of minutes and talk that through.

BRIAN: You know, we just heard when I talked to Bev Gage that this notion of non-state actors being terrorists has been around for, well, almost all of my period. I’m curious to know from you, Peter, going all the way back in time, whether this has always been the case.

PETER: Well, Brian, in a way, the answer to this is that the first great use of the term that word comes from in modern language is from the state, from the French revolutionary state in imposing through violent means a, well, a reign of terror over its own population. That idea of terror for people who observed the French Revolution from abroad was, the world turned absolutely upside down and anarchic with heads flying off the guillotine. Kind of the wrath of God. It was an awful, awful image. And it’s one that permeated the Western imagination over the next century and beyond.

So why would Americans worry about terror here? This is the land of the free. We do things peacefully and lawfully. We write constitutions.

Well, this is the age of the revolution. And that revolution is spread from France. I mean, the French are actively spreading it across the continent, but it comes to the New World. And it comes to the New World in the most unsettling place, and that’s Saint-Domingue, or what we call Haiti today, the first great black republic.

And that revolt of the slaves against their white masters epitomizes the kind of fears that Americans are going to have. That is, terror could reach America not because we have to overthrow a king and an aristocracy and an established church. We don’t have to turn our world upside down. But there are people in our midst who might want to turn our world upside down. That would be the slaves.

ED: So really from the time of the American Revolution, because the Haitian Revolution is right at the turn of the 19th century, people say, my goodness, we have a very large captive population in our midst. What’s to stop them from poisoning us, from slitting our throats in the night?

PETER: And you know, Ed, one of the things that’s really striking about the American understanding of this sort of violent insurrection is that it’s increasingly focused on individuals. And I think that’s the bridge toward the idea of the terrorist. This is the century, the romantic century in which the individual is seen as having the capacity to change the world. And this is, in a way, the anti-image, the anti-hero, the idea of the great servile leader.

ED: That’s a great point, Peter, because if you think about the history of servile insurrection in America, it’s all identified with a single leader. Now this begins in some ways back with Haiti with Toussaint Louverture, who is seen as sort of the great general rising up from among the enslaved to lead this. It takes almost no time to start appearing in the United States.

In Richmond, Virginia, Gabriel, 1800. Denmark Vesey, Charleston, 1822. Nat Turner, again in Virginia, 1831, ’32. The white South feels like they’ve calmed that because there’s no other large-scale identifiable slave revolt in the latter part of the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s. But then suddenly, in many ways the worst fear of the white South emerges, a white man who is going to ally himself with the enslaved to attack from within.

Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, today West Virginia. John Brown leads a band of black and white men into the armory of the United States. And so this is beginning to sound like, Brian, your 20th-century terrorism right now. What you’re trying to control are the means of destruction. And they are going to take over the railroad and the armory of mass-produced weapons. And when they get that, they are going to distribute them to the enslaved people and lead a rebellion.

I do believe that what’s new about John Brown in the late 1850s is he’s looking at this in a very systematic way. And he’s saying, you know, the entire American state, the federal government, the state government, the armed forces have been built to subjugate African-Americans. The entire American state is built around perpetuating slavery.

And what John Brown says is that slavery is itself a form of state-sponsored terrorism, that it is a daily assault upon the independence, the integrity of people’s lives. And the only way to fight that is with a force of equal force. This is what really freaked white Americans out, is they could recognize that as crazy as John Brown might seem or as might be portrayed, there was a relentless logic to what he was doing.

BRIAN: Yeah, Ed. And you’ve really put your finger on why John Brown truly is the bridge to 20th-century terrorism. What John Brown does is return us to that fundamental knowledge that real terror is held in the hands of the state, the state supporting all of those slaveholders. And so when those anarchists start challenging industrialism in the late 19th century, they are saying, these capitalists are terrorizing the workers. They’re tearing them apart limb by limb with their horrible machinery. And when terrorists challenge the state in the 20th century, they’re saying, your smart bombs and your armies and your munitions are terrorizing our people. We are simply exposing the terror that is inherent in the state.

ED: Earlier in the show, we mentioned that one of the defining attributes of terrorism is that it’s meant to strike fear into an audience beyond its immediate targets. It’s violence that sends a message. And from the end of the Civil War through the mid-20th century, a prime example of that kind of violence was lynching. At least 5,000 people were lynched during those years, the vast majority of them black men.

African-Americans understood that the message was this. Don’t step out of line, or else. As Richard Wright wrote in his autobiography, Black Boy, quote, “The things that influenced my conduct as a Negro did not have to happen to me directly. I needed but to hear of them to feel their full effects in the deepest layers of my consciousness.” End quote.

Hear of them or see pictures. In the early 20th century, photographs of lynching circulated widely, sometimes, believe it or not, as postcards. They functioned as stark reminders of the racial hierarchy for both white and black Southerners.

I recently had the chance to discuss the effects of these photos with historian Amy Wood, author of a recent book called Lynching and Spectacle. And just a warning to our listeners, this interview has descriptions of some graphic violence. If you’d rather not hear that, now’s the time to turn the volume down.

One of the pictures you have in your book is the lynching of Charlie Hale in Lawrenceville, Georgia, 1911. Can you sort of evoke that photograph and interpret it for us?

AMY WOOD: Sure. So this lynching, Charlie Hale was an African-American man who was accused of assaulting a white woman, which was one of the common charges leveled against African-American men. He was lynched in the center of town, right across from the county courthouse. In the photograph, Charlie Hale is hanging from a telephone or a telegraph pole.

And then around to the right hand side of the pole is a crowd of men that’s spilling out from the edges of the photograph. So it’s hard to even see how many men are there. There’s one child, one little boy, and then a number of men, some of whom are in more casual clothes. There is a man with a three-piece suit.

And they’re looking, there’s a kind of defiance to what they’re doing. I mean, they’re not smiling. They’re sort of following a convention of portraiture in 1911, the way people posed for a photograph. And then what’s kind of extraordinary is the papers after this event noted that no one, no members of the mob, could be identified, when this photograph was then made into a post card and circulated around town after the lynching.

ED: And something that’s very disturbing, too, is a sign hanging from the feet of the victim. Tell us about that, Amy.

AMY WOOD: The sign says, “Please do not wake.” So it’s a kind of mocking of his state at that moment. The faces on the crowd look really stern. But then next to that sign, you realize the kind of– I don’t know what the word would be, dismissiveness they have toward their victim, this kind of cruel mockery at this point of total degradation.

ED: So I think we’ve kind of segregated, so to speak, that in our imaginations by imagining this as being a part of the Ku Klux Klan. If you see films from it, it’s like it’s that moment, it’s those kind of people. And I think one of the really powerful lessons of your book is just how widespread. So there’s young men and women. There’s leaders of the community. There’s people who were seen as marginal to it. But everybody sort of crowds to get into the picture.

AMY WOOD: Exactly. The Klan arises during Reconstruction. And when they committed lynchings and other acts of violence against African-Americans, they cloaked themselves. Not necessarily in white robes, but they cloaked themselves. And that was a way to disguise their identity, but it was actually a way to also emphasize or accentuate the terror. Because they thought that by cloaking themselves in this way, they would appear more terrifying to their victims, which I think they did.

The Klan reforms officially in 1915, and it becomes quite popular in the early 1920s. But the Klan wasn’t officially engaging in lynchings in this period. In fact, the Klan as an organization disavowed lynchings. It could be that lynchings that were taking place in the late 1910s and the 1920s had Klansmen in the crowd or in the mob, but they weren’t doing so in their robes. They had kind of decloaked themselves.

These were not done under the cloak of a disguise. These were done as these public spectacles. These had become socially acceptable for people to show themselves within this crowd.

One thing I wanted to emphasize was that spectacle lynchings, these sort of mass mob lynchings, where the whole crowd is gathering around, the majority of lynchings didn’t happen that way. The majority of lynchings did happen more secretly, but then things like stories that were told and the photographs that added to that made those quote unquote “secret” lynchings quite public and made what otherwise might be a private event a public event.

ED: So it does seem that in some ways, all this peaks around 1915 and sort of the cult of Birth of a Nation and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and so forth. It seems that the 1930s are a turn against lynching, that the Southern governors, people begin to have some kind of crusades against it and so forth. So why do you think the 1930s would be when we see this turn away from that?

AMY WOOD: Well, I think there’s a number of different factors, including the black migration. So you start having white elites in the South fear of losing their labor force as African-Americans are wanting to flee the South. But I think we have to give credit to the anti-lynching movement as well and their success in publicizing these.

The black press is really developing in the late 19th, early 20th century. And once they had the technology to be able to print photographs, they start publishing these photographs in the black press, wanting to draw attention to lynching just through the sort of shocking nature of these photographs to sort of say, look, lynching has become socially acceptable. So that white liberals in the North start paying attention. You’re having a lot of white, liberal congressmen and senators supporting federal anti-lynching legislation. So that’s becoming public news.

And so you start having elites in the South particularly worried about commerce and the view that Northerners might have. They’re worried about capital investment coming in from the North. They start realizing that this is unseemly. And they start wanting to distance themselves from what mobs might be doing.

So you have this kind of shift in public opinion. You start seeing the mainstream media, so Time magazine and Life magazine, show a couple of images in the 1930s. And then Hollywood takes up the charge. So you get a few anti-lynching films in the 1930s from Hollywood.

And those films, just as something like Birth of a Nation replicating pro-lynching narratives, these Hollywood films in the 1930s like Fury, starring Spencer Tracy, start replicating the rhetoric of the anti-lynching movement. And most whites aren’t going to be reading the black press. But they are going to be reading Time and Life, and they are going to be going to Hollywood movies. So you get this kind of large-scale shift in public opinion, which forces Southerners on the defensive about this.

ED: Which helps explain the remarkable response to the Emmett Till case. Perhaps you could sketch that for us briefly.

AMY WOOD: Yeah. So Emmett Till was a young boy, 14-year-old boy from Chicago who went down one summer to Money, Mississippi, to stay with relatives. And he went into a grocery store, and he allegedly wolf whistled at the wife of the owner of the grocery store. That owner and– I think it was his brother or his brother-in-law– went and hunted down Emmett Till and tortured his body and killed him.

By that point in the 1950s, it was not a public spectacle. The mood had changed enough that they’re having to do this in secret. But Emmett Till’s mother wants what happened to her son to be made visible. She wants it to be made public. So she allows the press into his funeral in Chicago.

A photograph of Emmett Till in his casket, she had an open casket. And his body is completely disfigured and mutilated and bloated from– he was dropped in the river, and so his body was bloated from having been in the river. And those photographs appeared in the black press. They appeared in Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender. And it created a kind of anger in the black community that really helped gird what was already happening in the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

So that’s a kind of moment where you really see the whole way that imagery is used in lynching changing dramatically from something like 1911 with Charlie Hale. By the time you get to Emmett Till, the men who lynched him are not going to take pictures of themselves. They’re not going to take a picture of his body. And instead, it’s his mother who wants to take a picture of his desecrated body and use that as a symbol of white supremacy, a symbol of white terrorism. So if the first image was a symbol of black brutality and white strength, by the time you get to Emmett Till, the photograph of his body comes to represent white brutality.

ED: That was Amy Louise Wood, an associate professor of history at Illinois State University. Her book is Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890 to 1940.

BRIAN: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, we’ll take a few listener calls.

PETER: Remember, if you’d like to be a caller on a future BackStory episode, take a look at our website to see the topics we’re working on and leave us a note. That’s at backstoryradio.org. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: We’re back with BackStory, where today’s debates find a little context in American history. I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century Guy.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th Century Guy.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century History Guy. Today on our show, a history of domestic terrorism. Each week, we invite listeners to ask us their questions about our topic online via Facebook, Twitter, and our website. Today, we’re calling up some of the folks who left us a note.

Our first call is from Jameel in Atlanta, Georgia. Jameel, welcome to BackStory.

JAMEEL: Thank you. I have a question about the subject of terrorism. Some people suggest that the word itself is being thrown around or used by some people against other people, And that those positions can also be reversed. And I was wondering if this whole notion of saying that something is terroristic, is this a fairly modern development, or has it always been with us?

PETER: When have we started using it as a term of opprobrium, to identify enemies?

BRIAN: Did the French government use it positively in the French Revolution, Peter? Did they say, ah, now it’s time for some terror.

PETER: Now we’re terrorizing. No–

BRIAN: I suppose the question is, was there ever a time that it was used in a positive sense?

PETER: In a positive sense, I think only among the anarchists. There was some idea that if you’re in a global struggle or war against the evil regimes of capitalism, then you might say, yes, I’m happy to take that term, which has always been pejorative, and turn it around on you because you have been the perpetrators of real terror.

BRIAN: Jameel, are we getting warm here? Are we answering your question?

JAMEEL: Well, you’re getting warm. Let me push a little more.


JAMEEL: We remember shock and awe. And we were the shock and awe. We were using that to describe the impact of our rapid military advance into Iraq. Was that a terrorist strategy, or is it OK if we do it?

ED: Well, it strikes me if you talk about shock and awe, that was designed, kind of like mutually assured destruction, to actually stop further violence. The point of shock and awe is to end the war before it really begins. I think terrorists think that they are beginning a cycle of violence necessary to destroy big structures. And I think that since the revolution, terror has been appropriated by non-state actors. And states, therefore, cannot use the word terror because–

PETER: And of course, the terror that a state wreaks on its population is sublimated into institutions. So it takes the form of being lawful. Because we make the laws that we need to make so that we can incarcerate two million people. Or that we can identify people as enemy aliens, or that we can take various measures against them.

And that asymmetry is fundamental to our understanding of terrorism. That is, the individual or the non-state actor doesn’t have those institutional structures. They gotta improvise, and they have to go straight for the jugular. They have to take advantage of surprise, of the unexpected, of the terrible.

BRIAN: So Jameel, we’re not denying that there is terror implicit in war and in state-conducted wars. But we are trying to explore this phenomenon of the war of the few against large structures of power.

JAMEEL: Well, let me ask you this question. Then if large structures intimidate few, is that not terror then?

BRIAN: I would say that we insist that quote, “terrorists” play by the rules. What you’re saying is that the rules often create a great deal of terror. And I’m not going to deny that.

PETER: Well there’s a symmetry there, isn’t there?

BRIAN: I mean, we could talk about an African-American citizen, perhaps in the South after Reconstruction, not being certain that they could be safe walking down the street. That must’ve been a pretty terrifying feeling. Yet we don’t call that terrorism, frankly, I think, because it is sanctioned and reinforced by the customs and the laws of a large segment of the population. We are not saying that’s right, nor are we saying that that wasn’t terrifying for a large number of Americans.

JAMEEL: But how do you know, when you say “for a large segment of the population,” you’re not really talking about we. Because that’s a very good example, but for an African-American on the receiving end who may have been, in many of these cases if it’s a county or a city, half the population.

PETER: Sure.

BRIAN: Yeah, that’s absolutely right.

ED: See, I think the answer is in your question, Jameel, which is that the word is loaded. To speak of terror is to bring a whole cluster of assumptions with it that actually prevent us from talking about all the things that it is.

PETER: I mean, we know what terror is when it’s exercised by non-state actors against us, and we’re terrified. But it’s also true, and I think this is the other theme, that states manipulate feelings of terror in order t–

BRIAN: There’s no question.

PETER: –strengthen their authority and give them legitimacy. And that’s why we have to be on guard with the promiscuous use of these terms.

ED: We have to be on code orange all the time.

PETER: That’s right. Hey, Jameel, wonderful call. Thank you so much.

JAMEEL: Great, thank you very much. I love you guys. Keep it up.

BRIAN: Thanks, Jameel.

PETER: We’ve got time for one more call, and it’s going to be from Mary, right here in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mary, welcome to BackStory.

MARY: Hi, thank you.

PETER: What’s your question?

MARY: Well, I was just curious how the term “terrorist” in the American context has sort of evolved. I mean, both a foreign threat and sort of domestic subversives. And how that’s influenced the different types of counterterrorism measures.

PETER: Great question. And that introduces the foreign/domestic angle. Yeah, so where should we start? How about the 20th century?

BRIAN: Well, you asked, Mary, about how is terrorism defined. And one thing we can look to is when do terrorists begin calling themselves terrorists. And we know that they– or we think we know that the first terrorist to take credit for being a terrorist, call himself a terrorist, was this guy, Alexander Berkman, who attempted to assassinate an American industrialist, Henry Clay Frick, in 1892. And he was from central casting in terms of what terrorism would come to look like in that–

ED: Is that in Eastern Europe?

BRIAN: That’s right. That’s The eastern bureau of central casting. He was an anarchist. He was deeply secular.

You mentioned foreign terrorism, domestic terrorism. I think they come together in the period that Ed and I share from the 1880s to the 1920s, in that these people are literally coming from afar, but they are introducing these ideas to workers in the United States. Now, for you, Mary, I’d just be curious to know why are you interested in this?

ED: And is that a bomb I hear ticking in the background?

MARY: Haha, no. So I’m a graduate student studying history. And in my work, I’m looking at the Immigration Act of 1903, which was targeted at excluding immigrants who held anarchist beliefs from entering the United States. So this legislation was enacted in 1903 and then expanded in 1918 so we’re allowed to deport anyone who holds anarchist beliefs.

PETER: So we’ve been screening people for a long time. Or you might even say profiling them. And what you just said keyed off a thought with me. And that is, that’s the prelude, if you will, to the intense public religiosity in American culture, where “In God we trust” and all that stuff.

Because the anarchists had a false god. They had an idea of– that secular humanist idea– of a better world. And then we needed to assert our Christianity, or at least our belief in a god who believed in America. “In God we trust.” Yeah? Seem plausible to you, Brian?

BRIAN: I don’t know that it’s just in response to terrorism. It is, I will agree–

PETER: That was simple-minded.

BRIAN: No, no, Peter– Peter, I will agree that it’s in response to being terrified. Because we–

PETER: I agree with that.

BRIAN: We add “God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in the middle of the 1950s. And we are terrified–

PETER: Yeah, yeah, we need all the help we can get.

BRIAN: About that arsenal in the Soviet Union. And of course, what distinguishes us from both the Soviet Union and these godless anarchists? It is God. So I agree with you in general. Your point, and I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, Peter. Your point was even broader than you know.


BRIAN: Isn’t that a first, Ed?

ED: That’s a backhanded compliment if I ever heard one.

PETER: That’s the idiot savant, right?

ED: Yeah, right.

PETER: OK. Hey, Mary, wonderful call. You really got us going. And we now have a whole new view of terrorism. Thank you.

MARY: Thank you so much.

BRIAN: Thank you very much, Mary. Bye-bye.

MARY: Bye-bye.

ED: Today, we tend to use the word terrorism to describe a lot of crime that simply wasn’t an issue for much of American history, bioterrorism, ecoterrorism, cyberterrorism. It’s a word loaded with so much political baggage that it’s nearly impossible to use it without making a value judgment. An act of terror is unjustifiable. But if you call it an act of protest, well, that’s another story.

BRIAN: Yes, Ed, this problem goes back a long way. In fact, one of our producers, Eric Mennel, was mucking around and came across a 102-year-old book that dealt with these questions in, well, pretty unconventional ways.

PETER: Eric, welcome to the conversation.

ERIC MENNEL: Hey, guys, how are you doing?

ED: Pretty good.

BRIAN: We’re confused.

PETER: OK, so maybe some clarity can come now.

ERIC MENNEL: Right, right, right. So I was digging around, and I came across this book by Jack London, same guy who wrote Call of the Wild and White Fang.

PETER: Yeah, sort of a socialist kind of guy, right?

ERIC MENNEL: Right, he was really sort of a socialist sympathizer, which is interesting given the time he was writing.

ED: In the really early 20th century, right?

ERIC MENNEL: Exactly. So in 1910, he sat down to write this really sort of strange book called The Assassination Bureau, Ltd. And here’s the basic concept for The Assassination Bureau. This guy, Ivan Dragomiloff–

PETER: No kidding.

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, really, it’s sort of the best name in all of 20th-century fiction, I think.

PETER: Yeah, way up there.

ERIC MENNEL: Right. Sort of Bond villainesque, in a way. He’s come here from Russia, and he’s decided that society needs some help getting along down the proper moral path. And the best way to get down that moral path is for him to kill the people who are behaving immorally.


ERIC MENNEL: Yeah. It’s that kind of a crazy–

ED: He is a forward-looking fellow.


ERIC MENNEL: So basically, he gets together this group of highly trained, highly efficient assassins and stations them all over the country. And any time there’s a terrorist group who needs to blow up a police chief or to assassinate a judge, they will perform the job for them for a small fee.

BRIAN: As long as Drag-o-muh-LOO-yov– what’s his name? As long as–

ERIC MENNEL: Dragomiloff.

BRIAN: As long as Dragomiloff determines that the victim is morally corrupt.

PETER: Yeah, you know, interesting that judges are the targets you mentioned, Eric, because there’s a lot of judgment in what Dragomiloff is doing.

ERIC MENNEL: No, exactly. So this whole situation gets turned upside down when another guy walks into the picture. It’s a young man. His name is Winter Hall. He believes his friend has been assassinated by the Bureau unjustly.

So he walks into Dragomiloff’s office and says, I want to take out an extra-special commission. And Dragomiloff’s, OK, who would you like to take out this commission on? We’ll basically do anything for the right price. And he says, well, I would like to take out a commission on you, Ivan Dragomiloff.

ED: Well, nobody saw that coming.

PETER: Whoa.

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, right, right. So a very complicated situation. And Dragomiloff says, all right, that’s interesting. But we have rules here, and you have to prove to me that I have been morally corrupt.

PETER: It’s one of those teaching moments we talked about.


ERIC MENNEL: So London’s next move is pretty nifty. Dragomiloff decides that yes, he has a terrorist has acted immorally. And the rest of the Assassination Bureau is also in the wrong for committing other acts of terror. Therefore, not only does he need to be assassinated, but so do all the other members of the Bureau as well.

He sends out a telegraph to the assassins basically saying, I have taken a commission on myself. It is now your job to kill me. Oh, and by the way, you better work fast because I’m coming to kill you, too.

So Dragomiloff basically goes from city to city killing these assassins. I mean he is really, really good. He’s got this crazy move where he takes this thumbs and sticks it in their necks, and they just die. I don’t really understand– sort of a pressure point thing.

And he takes out maybe a dozen of these other terrorists before eventually they all wind up in San Francisco. And Dragomiloff tricks them all into coming over to his house for a bite to eat. Meanwhile, he has filled the house with dynamite.

PETER: Are they stupid? Why would they come to his house?

ERIC MENNEL: Exactly. So his house is laced with dynamite. And Dragomiloff is about to blow them all up. But unfortunately, his daughter comes knocking out the door to say hi. And he’s like, well now I can’t blow up the house. My daughter’s here.

So everyone’s in this very Tarantino-like situation, where, who’s going to pull the trigger. Do I blow them up? Do they blow me up? So they call a one-hour truce. They go out to a restaurant that isn’t laced with dynamite.

ED: Always a good move.

PETER: It’s not on the menu, huh?

ERIC MENNEL: Right, right. They sit down for dinner, and they get into another one of these, like, well, is killing people moral? Is it immoral? The get into one of these conversations. All the while, another assassin is sitting on the side with a bomb strapped to him timed to go off the minute the truce ends.

And you can sort of see Jack London writing himself into a corner here, right? The other assassins see this bomb, and they say, well, you can’t kill yourself. I mean, if you haven’t behaved immorally, then you have no reason to die, right?

And he’s like, oh, you’re right. But I want to kill him. And I feel like that’s my duty.

And Jack London is sort of like writing this back and forth and back and forth. And it’s really going nowhere it’s getting exhausting. And then all of a sudden, on page 122, Jack London stops writing right in the middle of the page.

He jots down some notes. He tries to map out where this could go. But nothing looks right. And six years later, Jack London kills himself.

PETER: No connection?

ERIC MENNEL: No connection, right, no connection. But we never really get an answer as to whether or not any of these guys are actually immoral for performing terror.

PETER: Yeah, so it’s a conundrum he couldn’t solve.

ERIC MENNEL: Precisely. Yeah.

ED: So Eric, unless you’ve been plowing through Jack London’s papers, how did you find out about this?

ERIC MENNEL: Well, there actually was a version of the book published in 1963. The author Robert Fish actually decided to pick up the book and give it a shot. Jack London had left some notes on how the book might end, and then Fish wrote his own version of the ending.

ED: You know, it is amazing, Eric, how much that sounds like many contemporary movies in which the lines of morality and immorality and justice and injustice are so blurred. Or filled with cops who are anguished about the consequences of their acts and terrorists who seem to have some core of good in them.

ERIC MENNEL: Yeah, I agree, Ed. Nowadays, I think it’s fair to say that most people accept a little gray area as to who is good and who is evil. But in 1910, I don’t really get the sense that that was the case, at least not in the mainstream. And so it seems like Jack London decided to wander down that path before anybody really understood how confusing it was. And I’m not entirely sure that we’re much closer than he was to finding an answer.

PETER: Eric Mennel is a producer at BackStory.

We want to know what you think about all of this. Is it clear to you what terrorism is? Do all of the things we’ve talked about on the show today fit the definition? And what does the history of terrorism tell you about the times we’re living through today?

BRIAN: Leave us a note at backstoryradio.org. All of our past shows are there, and we’ve also posted descriptions of shows in the works. Let us know what you think.

ED: You’ll also find us on Facebook and Tumblr. We tweet @BackStoryRadio.

PETER: We’ll be back again next week. Thanks for listening, and don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Nell Boeschenstein, Jess Engebretson, Eric Mennel, Anna Pinkert, and Allison Quantz.

PETER: Jamal Millner is our technical director. Our senior producer is Tony Field. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh are professors in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.