The Boston backlash is rooted in America's paranoid past

Right-wingers who exploit the Boston tragedy to attack immigrants are replaying a script that goes back 112 years

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 27, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann                                   (Jeff Malet, Ernst/Joshua Lott)
Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann (Jeff Malet, Ernst/Joshua Lott)

A terrorist attack, small in scale but brutal in effect, shocks the nation. The leading perpetrator is an American with foreign connections, apparently linked – at least in his own mind – to a worldwide movement of violent extremists. Furthermore, this young man in his late 20s with the unpronounceable name had attracted suspicion in the past and struck some observers as unstable, although even members of his own family did not suspect he was planning such a spectacular crime.

In the aftermath of the attack, some people assume it was the work of a sinister global conspiracy against America, despite little evidence. Others see an unemployed and alienated loner, unable to connect to the promise of the American dream, who turned to extremism out of personal despair or mental illness. Many political commentators call for a crackdown on immigration, the restriction of civil liberties and an aggressive military-style counterattack against anti-American radicalism, both at home and abroad. As the nation’s energetic young president puts it, counteracting this tide of violence is the most significant question facing the United States, and one that could even endanger the nation’s future.

Sounds familiar, right? Except that I’m not talking about the Boston bombing and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I’m talking about the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by an unemployed 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, a traumatic but poorly understood event that was one of the crucial pivot points in early 20th-century history. (It was the third presidential assassination inside 40 years -- so much for the bucolic 19th century -- and propelled the little-known Teddy Roosevelt into the White House.) I’m not sure whether to view the similarities between these events 112 years apart as an illustration of Karl Marx’s famous maxim about history repeating itself, or just of the principle that nobody in American political life ever strays far from the script. Either way, the McKinley assassination looks like one of those scenes we keep replaying, “Groundhog Day”-style, because we haven’t worked out its meaning or message.

Superficially, the America of McKinley’s time – a nation of 76 million people dominated by an Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite, in which only a handful of nonwhites and women were even permitted to vote -- has little in common with the America of Barack Obama. But the nativist paranoia about alien ideologies and alien religions remains strikingly familiar, as does the quest for “enemy combatants” behind every door and under every sofa. If you ask me, the real enemy combatants, now as in 1901, are right here at home, ready and willing to surrender our remaining rights and freedoms in the name of rooting out the supposedly imported virus of evil.

Over the last few days we’ve heard a lot of delirious right-wing chatter, very little of which has any direct relevance to the bizarre and painful case of the Tsarnaev brothers. Most obviously, the Tea Party troika of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul seem determined to twist this story into a reason to persecute Muslims in general and derail immigration reform. (Of course, they want to do those things under any and all circumstances; Boston is merely a pretext.) There are claims of a shadowy jihadist conspiracy and/or a government cover-up behind the attack; calls for surviving suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a United States citizen, to be interrogated at Gitmo or tried by a military tribunal; breathless revelations about the secret pro-Islamic agenda of the Obama administration. Immigration from Islamic nations should be banned, of course, and Muslims here on tourist or student visas should be sent home. (I don't know whether there's a way to bar Muslims from using the Internet, but I'm sure someone will suggest it.) The specific targets have shifted over the course of the century, to be sure, but that all sounds a lot like the wave of panic directed at the dangerous outsiders of the time -- Eastern European immigrants, Jews, Catholics, socialists and anarchists -- in the wake of the McKinley assassination.

Unlike the Tsarnaevs, Czolgosz was a native-born American who grew up in Michigan and Ohio. But his Polish-immigrant parentage and alphabet-soup surname clearly marked him as an alien contaminant in a nation struggling to absorb a huge tide of recent immigrants. By his own account he was inspired by foreign examples, and dreamed of striking a blow for world revolution. Czolgosz was reportedly fascinated by the case of Italian-American anarchist Gaetano Bresci, who had assassinated King Umberto I in July of 1900. A few months before shooting McKinley, Czolgosz met the legendary Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman at a speech she gave in Cleveland, where she reportedly said that she understood why anarchist revolutionaries turned to violence to overthrow despots, although she stopped short of endorsing it. Czolgosz told police later that her words had burned themselves into his brain.

Goldman was apparently happy to provide her young fan with a reading list on anarchist theory and politics (heavy with her own work, no doubt). But then he went beyond following her on Facebook, so to speak. After Czolgosz showed up unannounced at her Chicago home a few weeks later, Goldman told friends she was concerned about him – and the radical newspaper New Society then published a thinly veiled item suggesting that Czolgosz might be a government spy. In one of those strange consonances or coincidences that drive conspiracy theories, on the day Czolgosz visited Goldman in July 1901 she was on her way to Buffalo, N.Y., to take her daughter to the Pan-American Exposition, the big Western Hemisphere trade fair that was the year's big attraction. That was exactly where Czolgosz would shoot McKinley twice with his hardware-store revolver (price: $4.50) on Sept. 6.

Of course, if Czolgosz was essentially stalking Goldman, as she suspected, then it was no coincidence at all that he spent much of that summer in Buffalo. According to Scott Miller’s fascinating account in his book “The President and the Assassin,” Czolgosz spent most of his time holed up in a rooming house in nearby West Seneca, N.Y., reading books, quite likely those suggested by Goldman. Despite all the claims of far-reaching conspiracy aired after the assassination, Czolgosz had almost no tangible or personal connections to the world of anarchism. Few people knew him and fewer still liked him; his family told reporters he had no interest in friendship or romance, was frequently bullied as a child and spent most of his time alone. He was the classic prototype of the “lone nut” assassin; you could almost say he learned to be an anarchist and a terrorist from the Internet, or at least via its 1901 cognate, the printed word.

Mind you, I’m not saying that Emma Goldman’s explosive ideas and incendiary rhetoric bore no responsibility for what Czolgosz finally did in Buffalo, and it’s pretty clear she didn’t feel that way either. Most anarchists were understandably eager to disavow Czolgosz as an unaffiliated whacko who had disgraced a largely nonviolent movement. But while he was on Death Row, Goldman wrote an eloquent and tormented essay called “The Tragedy at Buffalo” that compared Czolgosz to Brutus, the assassin of Julius Caesar, and praised his courage and daring without quite embracing his crime. (She somehow neglected to mention that she had met him at least twice.)

I don’t believe I had ever read Goldman’s essay before this week, but it strikes an oddly similar tone to the article I wrote for Salon last weekend, inquiring into the “massive and disheartening national freakout” that followed the Boston bombing. Why, Goldman wondered, “were the mighty and powerful thrown into such consternation by the deed of September 6? Why this howl of a hired press? Why such blood-thirsty and violent utterances from the clergy, whose usual business it is to preach ‘peace on earth and good will to all’? Why the mad ravings of the mob, the demand for rigid laws to curtail freedom of press and speech?”

Goldman herself was arrested and interrogated after the McKinley shooting, along with several other anarchists. But the authorities eventually retracted their initial claims of a widespread conspiracy, and no one besides Czolgosz himself was ever implicated in the crime. He was convicted, sentenced and electrocuted within two months of the assassination – justice moved fast in those days! – all the while refusing to cooperate with the system or express any contrition.

Czolgosz pretty much singlehandedly destroyed the cause of anarchism, an idealistic and utopian political movement that by 1901 was already linked, in the popular imagination, to images of bearded, bomb-throwing radicals. (By seeming to defend him, even on abstract philosophical grounds, the movement’s leading theorist certainly didn’t help.) It’s impossible to resist a parallel to the present, when a billion or so diverse and normal-ish Muslims have become identified, at least in the West, with the actions of a few fanatics. Does Islam contain some disturbing currents, and does it face an internal crisis? Yes, and so did the socialist and anarchist left of the 1900s. But conflating any movement with its extreme margins is like reducing all of American history to the Ku Klux Klan.

In a backhanded way Czolgosz also succeeded in doing immense damage to America, just as the al-Qaida attacks almost exactly 100 years later would drive us to shred crucial elements of our Constitution and bankrupt our nation in pointless and destructive foreign wars. Even though there was no conspiracy to kill McKinley, anarchism and other forms of left-wing dissent would be relentlessly persecuted, driven underground and all but extinguished in the United States. There were vigilante attacks by nativists (in some cases egged on by officials), restrictive laws on free speech and political organizing, and a government surveillance program aimed at radicals that eventually morphed into a brand new federal police force, the FBI. While anti-anarchist laws were sporadically enforced at first, they kicked in for real after the Russian Revolution. Goldman had lived in the U.S. since she was 16 years old, but in 1919 – largely on the recommendation of a young Justice Department official named J. Edgar Hoover – the government revoked her citizenship and deported her to the Soviet Union.

Goldman was vilified on all sides for her undeniably peculiar defense of a man who was widely seen, even at the time, as a mentally unbalanced loner. But it’s worth considering what she says about Leon Czolgosz when we think about the Tsarnaev brothers. Her essential point is that Czolgosz wasn’t much of an anarchist but was definitely an American, “a child of Columbia,” shaped by conditions of economic inequality in which “a small band of parasites have robbed the American people, and trampled upon the fundamental principles laid down by the forefathers of this country.” He was nurtured, she suggests, on “a perverted conception of patriotism, and the fallacious notion that all are equal and that each one has the same opportunity to become a millionaire (provided he can steal the first hundred thousand dollars).” Realizing that all that was a lie, she says, essentially sent him around the bend.

If that critique sounds strikingly contemporary, so does Goldman’s Dr. Phil-style amateur psychology. She describes Czolgosz as “a soul in pain, a soul that could find no abode in this cruel world of ours.” That’s ladling it on pretty thick, but we’ve already heard at least the elder Tsarnaev described in similar terms. There are important distinctions: The McKinley assassination was a political act, however indefensible, while the Boston bombing was an act of vicious and cowardly public theater. One hopes Goldman would have seen the difference; her attempt to make Czolgosz's crime seem noble is disturbing, even at this historical distance. But her description of a young American who felt excluded from the national promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and who sought redemption in an ideology he didn't understand and a spectacular act of violence, hits close to home. Czolgosz and the Tsarnaevs were dangerous enough, in their way. But not dangerous enough to destroy America. Only we can do that.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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