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Boston Marathon bombing: how it compares to the 1920 Wall Street attack

The 1920 bombing of Wall Street, which killed 38 and injured hundreds, was the deadliest terror attack on US civilians until Oklahoma City. The crime has never been solved.

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This was one of the reasons people thought this really might be an accident. Even those few political revolutionaries who embraced terrorism most often were talking about deliberate acts of assassination or political violence. This level of mass violence was unusual and tragic.
 
Q: Had terrorism evolved from targeting specific types of people to the public at large?
 
A: Terrorism revolves around using targeted forms of theatrical violence to foster social instability. In modern form, it goes back to about the mid-19th century, when you began to get technologies like dynamite. You could plant a bomb and leave and wait for it to go off. As anarchists of the 19th century would have said, it allowed people to strike anonymously from afar.

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But much of the discussion tended to be about targeting business and political leaders. One of the questions is: How did we get from that vision to where we are today?

Part of the story is that there's a certain kind of escalation built into terrorism itself to maintain the ability to shock and public attention.

Terrorism is fundamentally about capturing people's attention. One of the reasons 9/11 was so shocking is that we hadn't seen anything quite like it before.
 
Q: Who was behind the bombing?
 
A: The main suspects were either anarchists, who are the most likely culprits by the judgement of history, or communists.

The country had been through a whole series of crackdowns on political radicals already. The most famous was the Palmer Raids, a series of deportations that had been aimed at anarchists and communists. By the time the Wall Street bombing happened, there had been a pretty public backlash because those efforts had been poorly handled.

You got an elaborate effort to go beyond the Palmer Laws, to crack down, have elaborate arrests, and even outlaw criticizing capitalism. A lot of that doesn't come to much because they don't solve the bombing, and there's never a lot of certainty about what actually happened. Things end up remaining in this uneasy state, and people move on.

Q: Why isn't the bombing remembered today?

A: The generation of people who lived through this bombing all remembered it. The day after it happened, the first 17 pages of the New York Times were devoted to that event in particular.

But there was never a memorial, and the leaders of Wall Street were pretty serious about not wanting to bring it up or reference it. They had a pretty deliberate strategy of letting the event recede into the past.

There isn't really anybody, except the families of the victims, who had a lot of interested in maintaining the memory of the bombing. The radical left didn't want to remind anyone of this, as it was a hugely discrediting event. People on Wall Street didn't want to preserve that memory. And the police investigators who utterly failed to solve the Crime of the Century had very little interest in keeping this going.

Q: Is there something positive we can take from this story?
 
A: In many ways, it's a story about political restraint.

Even in the face of a really serious tragedy, great mourning and very heated discussion and suspicion, people for the most part avoided jumping to conclusions and engaging in the kind of most draconian reaction that was being suggested at that moment.

However, had the police actually arrested a genuine suspect and had a big show trial, the story of the consequences would have been very different.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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