Tuesday 5 May 2009
Terrrorism, Then and Now
What Al-Qaeda is for us, anarchism and anarchists was for people living in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. You will find contemporary fears reflected in the literature of the day; from Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent to E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist, and George Glendon's The Emperor of the Air. The latter work, published in 1910, actually envisages a terrorist attack on New York from the air, by aircraft loaded with dynamite and piloted by anarchists.
Consider also Emile Zola's Germinal, with the unforgettable and single-minded figure of Souvarine, who can destroy even those he loves in the pursuit of his ideal. It was a time that saw the murder of several heads of state and prominent public figures; a time when bombs were thrown into pavement cafes, at religious processions, or into crowded theatres, as in Barcelona in November 1893.
People were worried, in essence, about the same things they are today: that an unscrupulous and amoral terrorist (or 'freedom fighter' if you prefer; the end result is just the same) would get a hold of ever more destructive weaponry and use it without scruple of conscience.
It was a time also when England, yes, England, was felt by various countries to be a 'refuge for terrorists' because of its lax asylum laws. In 1898 an international conference was held in Rome to try to secure co-operation against the anarchist threat. The recommendations included tougher immigration laws and easier extradition. England attended, but effectively ignored the provisions. It was felt at the time that a more stringent policy in this area would be unpopular with an electorate, suspicious of Continental despotism. How things have changed!