The McKinley Assassination and Terrorism Today

On a sweltering afternoon 110 years ago today, President William McKinley stood in a receiving line at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Shortly after 4:00, a slightly built man in his mid-20s stepped forward as if to greet the affable and popular president, but instead withdrew from his pocket a .32 caliber revolver wrapped in a white handkerchief. Before McKinley or any of his security men realized what was happening, the man, Leon Czolgosz, fired two shots point blank into the president's torso. McKinley died eight days later.

Czolgosz, a staggered American public would soon learn, subscribed to theories of anarchism. Almost forgotten today, anarchists were at the turn of the century a widely known and feared group, determined to destroy the power of the rich and improve lives of the working class. Already Americans had read of numerous attacks in Europe and in the United States where a small but ruthless minority of anarchists practiced a violent strategy they called Propaganda of the Deed. Today, we would call their tactics terrorism.

It's worth noting on the anniversary of McKinley's death, and five days before another tragic anniversary, that America has long faced radicals who employ violence and murder and that such attacks have much in common, whether aimed at American involvement in the Middle East, or the power of big business.

Read the literature of radical anarchists in the 1880s and 1890s, and time and again the same justification for violence is put forward: The authorities -- the police, the courts, the government -- had been the first to employ violence and murder, through the courts and the execution chamber. By replying with bombings and attacks of their own, radical anarchists felt like they were only repaying in kind. Such was the case, for example, when Italian-American Gaetano Bresci traveled to Italy from New Jersey to murder King Umberto I because, in the view of American anarchists, he ruthlessly oppressed his people.

Likewise, anarchists of the 1880s and '90s were every bit as willing to lay down their lives for their cause as are modern terrorists. In France in the 1890s, one social radical after another set off bombs or attacked public figures, knowing that he would be caught and sent to the guillotines. In 1887, an American anarchist by the name of Albert Parsons was sentenced to death for the murder of a Chicago policeman, even though he was not at the scene of the attack. He could have escaped the hangman's noose if he had simply made a written request to the governor of Illinois for a pardon. Maintaining his innocence, he refused. Parsons and three others went to their deaths as unrepentant anarchists.

Finally, regardless of the century, terrorism begets terrorism. Then, as now, each attack only seemed to inspire another. Alexander Berkman, who attempted to murder steel magnate Henry Clay Frick in 1892, hoped to punctuate his attack by committing suicide just as another anarchist had done in a Chicago jail cell. Both his attack and his suicide attempt failed and he served a lengthy prison sentence. McKinley's assassin, similarly inspired, carried a newspaper clipping of Bresci's attack in Italy to his final days.

In the end, of course, anarchists failed to achieve their goals. Rather than engendering sympathy for the cause, these terrorist attacks only hardened the public against them and led to new laws to stomp out anarchism altogether.

McKinley's shooting over a century ago is a reminder that terrorism is neither the product of a particular religion nor place in the world. Terrorism rather should be seen in a historical context. The decades show us that extremists can convince themselves that violence is perfectly justifiable and that suicide is a price worth paying to achieve their beliefs.

Scott Miller's book, The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century, was published in June by Random House.