Sept. 6 will mark the 104th anniversary of the assassination of President William McKinley. That's not something most of you will find on your calendars. Few people recognize it the way today's older Americans recognize Nov. 22, the date of John F. Kennedy's assassination.
But McKinley's murder has more application today than does Kennedy's. We live in a world that, politically, at least, is much more similar to 1901 than it is to the Cold War year of 1963. Today's war on terror bears many striking similarities to the roughly 1880-1910 war on anarchists the loosely knit group of anti-civilization counter-culturalists who believed they had to tear down the modern world in order to build something better. And the assassination of the president of the United States by one of them, Leon Czolgosz, was a grand achievement for this movement something on par with knocking down the nation's tallest skyscrapers.
The terror alert was high back then, even without a Department of Homeland Security. The enemies were lurking in our own shadows. On the night of the assassination, anarchist sympathizers met in a bar in Chicago and gave speeches. According to a New York Times account, they applauded when Czolgosz was mentioned by name, and they jeered the name of the president, who at that moment was lying on his death bed.
Had CNN been there, you can imagine what emotions such a video would have produced. These weren't people on foreign soil celebrating attacks on New York. These were folks in a bar in Chicago, right in our own heartland.
Not surprising, the outcry was tremendous.
In the days following the assassination, members of Congress and the public began calling for tougher laws. Newspaper accounts, such as one in the Times on Sept. 8, 1901, talked about how the commissioner of immigration had once tried to stop anarchists from entering the country but had been thwarted by Congress because of arguments that it would be wrong to keep people out because they believed in a particular theory.
There were calls to prohibit anarchists from publishing their thoughts or holding meetings, or to simply deport them all.
The paper also recorded how the Texas Legislature passed a resolution urging Congress to pass laws to prevent the "dumping upon America of the depraved, debauched and criminal elements of other nations." Meanwhile, authorities began rounding up suspected anarchists nationwide. One of the notable agitators, Emma Goldman, was arrested and held without bond, presumably because Czolgosz was believed to have been inspired to kill the president by one of her speeches.
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. No one thought of drafting the Patriot Act, probably because wire-tapping hadn't been perfected yet. But plenty of people fretted as to how cells of anarchists were active in several parts of the country, ready to strike again.
And strike they did. Bombs were detonated in many American cities during those years. In 1920, someone set one off on Wall Street, killing about 40 people. European cities suffered, as well. Monarchs and other leaders were assassinated.
So what happened? How did it all end? What can we learn from the lessons of a century ago?
Unfortunately, the answers aren't cheery. A report in the most recent issue of The Economist puts some perspective on what happened. It said yesterday's terrorists just sort of withered away because the rest of the world became preoccupied with the wars and revolutions that dominated the 20th century.
"But in truth the wave did not entirely pass; it merely changed," the magazine said. Anarchists either evolved into or were replaced by other groups, such as "Fenians, Serb nationalists, Bolsheviks, Dashnaks . . . fascists, Zionists, Maoists, Guevarists, Black Panthers . . . " and, eventually, al-Qaida.
The magazine said, "Few of these shared the anarchists' explicit aims; all borrowed at least some of their tactics and ideas."
None of them, however, dispersed or disintegrated because of tough laws against terrorism.History can be instructive. On the one hand, it shows that the war on terror most likely never will be completely won. But the lessons for terrorists are even more sobering. Their chances for ultimate victory are even worse. Even the assassination of a president ends up as a little-recognized moment in history a century later.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: [email protected]