Sunday, March 21, 2010

Was this man the first terrorist of the modern age?

Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 12:08 UK

Was this man the first terrorist of the modern age?

Emile Henry at the Cafe Terminus combing
Emile Henry's attack on a cafe in 1894, which killed one person

It's eight years to the day since the first shots were fired in America's War on Terror. But can the terrorism tactics it sought to crush be traced back to a single attack on a Parisian cafe more than 100 years ago, asks Professor John Merriman.

On February 12, 1894, a young intellectual anarchist named Emile Henry went out to kill. And, in doing so, he arguably ignited the age of modern terrorism.

As he had looked down on Paris from near his miserable lodgings in the plebeian 20th arrondissement on the edge of Paris, he vowed war on the bourgeoisie. His specific goal was to avenge the execution of Auguste Vaillant a week earlier.

Unable to feed his family, Vaillant had thrown a small bomb into the Chamber of Deputies, slightly wounding several people. His goal: to call attention to the plight of the poor.

Emile Henry
Unlike previous anarchist bombers, Henry was an intellectual

Now, armed with a bomb hidden under his coat, Henry walked up the Avenue de l'Opera, pausing at several elegant cafes, but he moved on because they were not full enough. He entered the Cafe Terminus, which is still there, near the Gare St Lazare, ordered two beers, and a cigar.

With the latter he lit the fuse of his bomb, and threw it into the cafe, leaving carnage behind. Amid thick, acrid smoke, marble tables, metal chairs, and mirrors had shattered. The screams and shouts of those wounded joined the smoke.

Henry ran away, before being wrestled to the ground after a fierce struggle. In the cafe, 20 people had been wounded, some very seriously, one of whom would die.

Along with the bombing of the Liceo theatre in Barcelona, the attack on the Cafe Terminus signalled a marked change in targets of terrorists.

Where before it was policemen or heads of state - the French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated the same year - who were the targets of violent anarchists, now it was ordinary people. The bourgeois.


At his trial, Henry described how his love for humanity had been transformed into hatred for the ruling classes. Fifteen months earlier, one of his bombs had killed five policemen. Now he had gone out to kill bourgeois because they were who they were.

Henry at guillotine
Henry was executed, by guillotine, three months after his attack

He had "no respect for human life, because the bourgeois themselves have absolutely none".

Emile Henry was guillotined at age 21.

There are of course salient differences between the terrorists of the 1890s and those in our world. For one thing, the role of religious fundamentalism, such as so-called jihadists who subscribe to al-Qaeda's world view, was not a part of anarchist attacks.

However, can we find useful parallels between Henry's bomb, or "deed" as the violent anarchists used to call such attacks, and terrorism today?

Then, as now, terrorists targeted anyone identified with their enemies. Moreover, both cut across social boundaries. Unlike the notorious French anarchist bombers Ravachol and Vaillant, who were decidedly down and out, Emile Henry was an intellectual.

Both groups have used weapons that levelled the playing fields. Dynamite, invented in 1868 by Alfred Nobel, represented as one contemporary put it "a modern revolutionary alchemy".

Kamikaze pilots

An American anarchist crowed, before being hanged in Chicago following the famous police riot at Haymarket, "in giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe, science has done its best work."

Both share a fervent belief in ideology, and confidence that eventually they will win - providing an apocalyptical, even millenarian aspect to terrorists

Likewise, road-side bombs in today's world have emerged as a weapon of choice. And then, as now, terrorist practitioners seek "revolutionary immortality" - hoping to inspire others with their heroic demise. Suicide bombers, however, with the exception of Kamikaze pilots, are a new phenomenon.

Both sets of terrorists target a powerful enemy, a structure they set out to destroy. For the anarchists, the enemy was the state, and the pillars that supported it - capitalism, the army, and the Church, with Henry adding the bourgeoisie.

For the anarchists, only the destruction of the state could bring equality and thus happiness.

In the case of jihadists today, the West and particularly the power of the United States stand as the target.

Moreover, both share a fervent belief in ideology, and confidence that eventually they will win. This provides something of an apocalyptical, even millenarian aspect to terrorists, many of whom are young, intent on changing the world.

In dealing with terrorism, both the French government more than 100 years ago and American officials in the early period of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, had a tendency to look for a centrally organised, massive conspiracy. Instead, they ought to have acknowledged the role of small groups or even isolated individuals undertaking locally organised, or freelance operations undertaken by "self-starter" terrorist groups.


Yet, there remains a fundamental difference between revolutionary violence and resistance violence, although they may well share tactics. The latter has in the 20th Century and beyond, been directed at occupying powers, for example, Israel, French forces in Algeria, and the US in Vietnam and Iraq.

Revolutionary and resistance terrorism, however, have in common that their violence is directed against states that they view as oppressive and whose presence they consider unjust.

Madrid bomb
The Madrid bombs of 2004 - an attack on civillians, not police or military

The anarchist attacks in the 1890s remind us of another dimension of terror where some people accuse the state itself of terrorism, undertaken often violently by a repressive state against its own people (or against those in places it invades or occupies).

This variety of terrorism is often conveniently forgotten or overlooked.

Indeed, one theory has it that "terrorism" began with the state, during the radical phase of the French Revolution.

Henry had been deeply affected by the state's increased repression of all dissidents. His father had seen state terror up close, condemned to death in absentia for having been a militant in the Paris Commune of 1871, after which at least 20,000 Parisians perished.

The over-reaction of state authorities in France, as well as in Italy and Spain, during the heyday of anarchist attacks did not work. Anarchists arrested in the systematic repression by the police in 1894, including a number of anarchist intellectuals put on trial that same year, accused of being in an "association of evil-doers," were not terrorists.

The French government used the panic that the anarchist bombs understandably brought to crack down on dissidents. The repression undercut the government's claim on moral authority. The French government in the 1890s did not torture prisoners - their Spanish counterpart did - public revulsion turned against the government and indeed the wave of attacks ended.

More than 100 years later, it is a policy from which today's elected leaders could, perhaps, learn.

John Merriman is the Charles Seymour professor of history at Yale University and author of The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-De-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror, published by JR Books.

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