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The president and the assassin

A century ago, terrorists struck at the heart of America. Our leaders hit back hardand also began addressing the country's real problems.

LONG BEFORE SEPT. 11, 2001, Americans learned how to live with the fear that a formless global collusion of madmen and thugs wanted to kill us just for being who we are. Tony Blair is wrong when he tells us that ``history provides so little instruction for our present day.'' Just as Islamist terrorists stalk us now, so the communist specter haunted our parents and anarchists ambushed our grandparents. We have lived with this dread for as long as anyone can tell.

In September 1901, a terrorist attack in Buffalo, N.Y., struck at the heart of a new American empire. It was the latest in a decades-long string of attacks on Western nations. But the response of American leadersabove all, Theodore Rooseveltestablished a plan for deflecting the hate that inspired such assaults. Even as Roosevelt denounced the evil of terrorism, he used it to invoke the better angels of American nature against the shortcomings of his own society. His methods were influential, though today, they might seem unfamiliar.

. . .

In 1881, hundreds of anarchists met in Paris and London to approve the use of terrorism as a weapon against industrial civilization, and a wave of violence began slowly to roll over the Western world. Bombs exploded without warning, bloodying dozens of innocent citizens. As the terror campaign accelerated, assassins killed the French president Sadi Carnot, the Spanish premier Antonio Cnovas del Castillo, Empress Elizabeth of Austria, and Italy's King Umberto.

Nor was the United States immune. During an 1886 labor demonstration in Chicago's Haymarket Square, a bomb exploded and a melee ensued, killing seven policemen and an uncounted number of civilians; four anarchists were later hanged for inciting the bombing. In 1892, an anarchist shot and stabbed the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in a failed assassination attempt. Nobody knew where the next attack would come. As the anarchist bomber Emile Henry explained, the terrorists believed that ``il n'y a pas d'innocents''there are no innocents.

When terrorist anarchism emerged, it seemed an insane ideology whose adherents were convinced that symbolic violence would cause capitalism to collapse, making way for utopia. True anarchist believers would kill and die for the cause. Anarchism sounded especially mad to Americans, who enjoyed the blessings of modern consumer society as no other people did. They could scarcely comprehend anyone wanting to destroy a social order that was so good to them. As the American commentator F.L. Oswald wrote in 1900, at first ``it did not seem worth while to controvert the ravings of madmen.'' But the radicals flourished, he noted: ``Like the homicidal sectarians of Mohammedanism, the king-slaying fanatics have profited by [the] appearance of mental incompetence.''

As the violence continued, Oswald pointed out, a pattern appeared: The murderers hailed from countries in Eastern and Mediterranean Europe, where ``the contrasts of wealth and poverty have reached their most cruel extreme.'' Many American pundits came to believe that anarchist terrorism was a social problem, a revolt of ``misery against happiness,'' that, unlike insanity, requireda political remedy. By the turn of the century none had appeared.

So on Sept. 6, 1901, when an anarchist assassin fatally shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, thus elevating Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the White House, it was shocking but not exactly surprising. Indeed, before the attack various seers had with varying seriousness prophesied McKinley's murder.

Ambrose Bierce predicted it; the president's secretary, George B. Cortelyou, dreaded it; and on the afternoon of the assault, Exposition organizers James Quackenbush and Louis Babcock wondered ``if it would not just be Roosevelt's luck for someone to shoot the President.''

The nation's guardians knew that terrorists wanted to strike the United States, which had become the capital of capitaland, since McKinley's decision to acquire the Philippines and Puerto Rico, a newly imperial power. Even so, they did little to prevent an attack; and so McKinley walked to the head of a receiving line at the Exposition's Temple of Music. The apparently innocuous Leon F. Czolgosz simply waited in line until he got to the front and then shot him.

The killing put American officialdom in an awkward position. They wanted to dismiss the assassin as a madman. That way, as Czolgosz's court-appointed defense attorney Loran L. Lewis suggested, they could avoid difficult questions of why terrorists wanted to attack in the first place, and whether they could have been stopped.

``If it can be that you find this defendant was not responsible for the crime,'' Lewis implored the jury, ``you would aid in uplifting a great cloud off from the hearts and minds of the people of this country and the world. . .. If our beloved President had met with a railroad accident coming to our city and had been killed, . . . we should all mourn over the loss of such a just man, but our grief would not compare to the grief we have now. . .. But if you could find that he met his fate by the act of an insane man, it would amount to the same as though he met it accidentally.'' There would be no need for queries, that way, about whether anarchist terrorism could be deflected from American targets.

But declaring the killer insane would mean sparing his life, so the authorities scrambled first to seek vengeance and then to prevent inquiry into the attack. Thomas Penney, the local district attorney, declared, ``Czolgosz was sane and an anarchist without question.'' Beyond that, though, he wished to ``suppress all that was possible,'' and refused to release records of his investigation. Czolgosz was swiftly tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

On Oct. 29, prison guards muzzled Czolgosz in the middle of his final statement as he sat in the electric chair, to prevent him making an ``anarchistic speech'' that might be relayed to other terrorists. The prison warden had him specially buried in a grave filled with sulfuric acid to ensure the speedy dissolution of his body. Even the dead man's remains would tell no tales.

. . .

The threat of anarchism that once inspired such official jitters comes to us now only as an echo of those times, a quaint touch in old books and movies, like the scene in ``Citizen Kane'' where publisher Charles Foster Kane teaches reporters how to browbeat a reluctant source: ``Call him an anarchistloudly, so the neighbors can hear.''

Kane's flunkies laugh, and maybe we do, too. But the fictional Kane, speaking in the 1890s, is playing a dangerous game. We have only to imagine a TV news crew at someone's door today, calling the inhabitants terrorists ``loudly, so the neighbors can hear,'' to understand how anarchism troubled America. Threatened by international terrorism, Americans at the turn of the century looked askance at swarthy men with too many consonants in their names, and looked to their leaders for protection.

Among American statesmen only Theodore Roosevelt, who had long urged his peers to take radical threats seriously, appeared unembarrassed by the problems that terrorism posed.

``The time of the great social revolutions has arrived,'' Roosevelt wrote in 1894. ``We are all peering into the future to try to forecast the action of the great dumb forces set in operation by the stupendous industrial revolution which has taken place during the present century. We do not know what to make of the vast displacements of population, the expansion of the towns, the unrest and discontent of the masses.''

Like the anarchists, Roosevelt diagnosed a growing awareness among Americans of genuine injustice. He believed, as few other politicians did, that the comforts of middle-class life blinded many of his fellow countrymen to the hardships endured by the majority of humankindhardships whose effects might be lessened by political action.

And so, although Roosevelt opened his first address to Congress by pledging himself to fight the ``evil'' of anarchism, he moved immediately into a much longer section of his speech titled ``Regulation of Corporations.'' He proposed to address the great ``social problems'' and the ``antagonism'' of the daythe radicalism that threatened Americans' safetyby trimming the excesses of unfettered capitalism.

Only a few paragraphs after denouncing terrorism, Roosevelt identified ``real and grave evils'' on Wall Street (chief among them: fraudulent accounting and white-collar looting) that undermined Americans' patriotic pride in ``the industrial achievements that have placed this country at the head of the nations.''

Instead of writing off terrorism as the work of foreigners and madmen, that is, Roosevelt turned the problem into a chance for American self-examination and self-improvement. In the wake of a national trauma, nobody seriously challenged him. His agenda of changing American capitalism, in part so that it would attract less animosity, ruled American politics thereafter.

. . .

As it happened, Roosevelt had also unknowingly arrived at a correct diagnosis of Czolgosz's problemthough it took a while for this to become clear.

After Czolgosz's burial, the Boston psychiatrists Walter Channing and L. Vernon Briggs launched an investigation into the assassin's possible insanity. They found that his youthful development had taken a ``perverted'' course, and that he should not have been held responsible for his actions. Briggs went on to make a career of lobbying the Massachusetts Legislature to improve laws for identifying the criminally insane. The result was a 1921 act commonly called ``the Briggs Law'' in his honor. As amended, it remains Massachusetts law today.

Yet to a modern eye, the evidence for Czolgosz's insanity is thin. What from a Bostonian perspective looked like ``perverted'' development really represented a pathetically ordinary American story.

Like millions of Americans, the Detroit-born Czolgosz worked in steel and other trades routinely upset by unemployment; he went out of work with economic downturns, relying on private savings to see him through. And like millions who were out of work, he read in the newspapers how free markets treated powerful Americans. In the 1893 depression, for example, then-governor William McKinley of Ohio faced bankruptcybut was bailed out by his friends among the steel executives. Meanwhile, the steel mill where Czolgosz worked blacklisted him for striking. Struggling through the next few years, he sank deeper into ill health and unemployment. Finally, he decided to die like an anarchist terrorist, by murdering McKinley and ensuring his own death.

Czolgosz's evil deed put the country into the hands of a president who believed the business cycle needed regulating and mitigating, not least to prevent the emergence of radicals and to deflect their attention from American institutions. It was a conservative method of thwarting radical threats. Later leaders adopted it, and it kept American capitalism the envy of the world for almost a century afterward.

If, as the British philosopher John Gray claims, ``Al Qaeda's closest precursors are the revolutionary anarchists of late 19th-century Europe,'' then we may learn something from the strategy Roosevelt used to quell that radical threat. Let's hope so.

Eric Rauchway teaches history at UCal-Davis. He is the author of ``Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America,'' published this week by Hill & Wang.

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