Critical Enquiry

The USA's First Brush With Terrorism?

Many Americans think of terrorism as a new phenomenon, and probably believe the US experienced no terror incidents prior to the 1990s (the first World Trade Center event and Alfred P Murrah building bombing in Oklahoma City). Sadly this isn't the case, but which events in US history constituted terror events depends on what definition of "terrorism" is used.

The term "terrorism" is by no means new, having probably been coined during the Revolutionary period in France. Other terms, such as "agent provocateur" and "anarchist," have also been used to describe terrorists over the years.

Resources generally define "terrorism" as "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons. " This is a fairly broad definition. Under its guidelines, examples of terroristic acts could include everything from Cortez' persecution of the Mayans to an personal threat against a neighbor with whom one has a political disagreement. The same could be said of both Native American attacks against white settlers and US Army actions against various tribes whose leaders refused to submit to rule by Washington DC.

This said, various events during the 1880s certainly rank as terroristic in nature. This period was roiled by a great deal of labor-related unrest; while industrialists amassed huge fortunes their employees often were forced to work extremely long days (up to 18 hours in some cases) for low wages. Employment was not guaranteed, no benefits were provided, and any dissent was often viciously suppressed by hired gangs.

As a result, the labor union movement began gaining momentum. It was fueled both by the sense of inequity between labor and management and by the promise, in some cases, of Karl Marx' books on economics and politics. Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto forecast workers taking direct control over production, ousting management in favor of distributed, worker-owned businesses in which the fruits of labor were shared equitably among all. This somewhat utopian ideal (which could never actually be fulfilled due to human nature, as would be discovered later on) struck a chord with disaffected workers. Their often desperate situation occasionally inspired acts of violence.

Thus was born the 1886 Haymarket Affair, also called the Haymarket Riot.

The Riot

The Haymarket Affair started as a protest and march for workers' rights. At some point during the proceedings, as Chicago police moved to break up the rally, someone threw a bomb. The guilty person was never identified, but seven policemen and an unknown number of civilians were killed by the blast.

Haymarket Riot Image from Harpers Magazine

Depiction of the Haymarket Riot and Bomb (Harpers Magazine, May 15, 1886)

Portraits of the Anarchists and others

Portraits of the anarchists and others involved in the riot (Chicago Historical Society's collection)

The Aftermath

Following the event, eight known anarchists were detained, charged, and tried for murder. Four of the eight were eventually executed, and another committed suicide in his jail cell.

Even though the actual perpetrator of the explosion remained unidentified, a great deal of speculation over the years has identified several candidates. Some were anarchists, others were directly involved in the labor movement.

It's also been suggested that a Pinkerton detective or police officer was sent as an agent provocateur to throw the bomb; the suggested motive is to discredit the labor movement by depicting them as murderers. This conclusion is unlikely, as several of the defendants claimed the bomber was "one of their own."

Alternately, it's possible an unknown worker or someone totally unrelated to the rally simply used the incident as cover for their own agenda. We may never know.

"Attention Workingmen" flier, 1886 May 4

"Attention Workingmen" flier, 1886 May 4. This was used as evidence against one of the defendents. The German text is identical to the English version above.

The Haymarket bomb, thrown over 100 years before the events of the 1990s, certainly qualifies as an example of domestic terrorism. Others would follow: the "Weather Underground" incidents of the 1960s, the Eco-Terrorism of the EDF and other extremist organizations, and the Oklahoma City bombing (the latter was originally thought to have been instigated by Muslim agitators).


Note: All information contained in these pages is © 2008 Richard E. Joltes. Excerpts may be used where proper credit is given and permission is obtained in advance. All rights reserved.