Segment from Fear Tactics

Blurring the Blurry Lines

Producer Eric Mennel tells the story of how a turn-of-the-century American writer grappled with his own ambivalence about the meanings and purposes of terrorism.

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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.**

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.