Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On Suicide Bombers

Hmm. Seems the idea has been around for a while:-

On May 4, 1886, several anarchists had addressed a crowd in the Haymarket, a square in Chicago two blocks long where farmers sold produce. When nearly a hundred and eighty policemen arrived to break up the rally, someone threw a bomb, and the police opened fire. At least seven patrolmen died, and at least four civilians. Over the next few weeks, the authorities rounded up and detained hundreds of the city’s anarchists. Eight men were put on trial for murder, the most prominent of whom were Albert Parsons and August Spies (pronounced “Spees”). Parsons led the city’s English-speaking anarchists, and Spies the German-speaking ones.

The prosecution never proved that any of the eight had planned, committed, or even known in advance about the Haymarket bombing. Instead, it relied on their words. All of them had praised violence in the cause of socioeconomic justice. “If we would achieve our liberation,” Parsons had told a crowd of protesters in April of 1885, “every man must lay by a part of his wages, buy a Colt’s navy revolver, a Winchester rifle, and learn how to make and use dynamite.” The prosecution argued that anarchism itself constituted a conspiracy to commit murder, and the jurors agreed, sentencing all but one of the defendants to death. The person who actually threw the bomb was never identified.

The German papers owed their success to two factors. First, there were a lot of Germans in Chicago to read them. Avrich guesses that not long after Bismarck’s Germany passed an antisocialist law, in 1878, there were more German anarchists in America than in Germany. Second, all three papers were in the hands of August Spies, a radicalized upholsterer with blue eyes and a lush, curling mustache, who spoke three languages, honed his physique at the gym, and had a reputation as a ladies’ man.

Spies wrote fiery editorials in the Arbeiter-Zeitung, and his colleague Schwab, a scholarly-looking bookbinder, reported on the slums. “Some of these people get their vegetables from the waste-barrel,” Schwab wrote. (In the matter of bookbinders turning anarchist, Henry James had it right: industrialization may have left such craftsmen particularly bitter.)

In 1884, the Saturday edition serialized Zola’s “Germinal,” in which an anarchist sabotages a coal mine and then stalks off like a melancholy super-villain into “the unknown, calmly going to deal destruction wherever dynamite could be found to blow up cities and men.”

The anarchists were indeed fond of dynamite, then a recent invention. Its main ingredient, nitroglycerin, had been around since the eighteen-forties, but not until Alfred Nobel found a way to stabilize it, by mixing it with an inert filler, did it become safe enough for widespread use—including use by amateurs with a cause. “Dynamite is the diffusion of power,” Parsons explained at the trial. “It is democratic; it makes everybody equal.”

In 1884, his wife suggested that tramps who were thinking of drowning themselves should become suicide bombers instead.

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