Bombs Away BY TOM PALAIMA The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-de-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror By John Merriman Houghton Mifflin 224 pages, $26 Feb. 12, 2009 n a Ben Sargent editorial car toon published in the Austin American -Statesman after the Nov. 26-29, 2008, Mumbai ter rorist attacks, a heavyset man looks back over his shoulder at the reader. The man looks surly and uneducated. He is unshaven, progna thic and pug-nosed. He has on a worn winter overcoat and a longshoreman’s stocking cap. He has just entered the kind of run-down office where femmes fatales went to hire private eyes in 1940s and ’50s films noirs, only this office is identified on the opaque glass pane of its entrance door as A-1 SCHOOL OF TERRORISM. The heavyset man stands in front of a smaller inner door identi fied as the ADMISSIONS OFFICE. To his right, two open cardboard boxes sit on a wooden desk. A sign posted on the cracked wall features a thick black arrow that points down at the boxes. Above the arrow, bold letters instruct prospective students of terrorism: DISPOSE OF HEART AND/OR BRAIN HERE. In The Dynamite Club, Yale historian John Merriman describes the historical setting and background of what he argues is the first modern act of true terrorism. At 9:01 on the evening of Feb. 12, 1894, 21-year-old French anarchist Emile Henry, who earned his baccalaureat in science from the Sorbonne in 1888, threw a dynamite bomb he had made into the crowded Caf Terminus in Paris. A small orchestra had just started playing “the fifth piece of their first set” when Henry threw his bomb. Merriman’s account enables us to identify the false stereotypes in Sargent’s cartoon. This is no small gain in what we, as citizens, need to know about terrorism. The chief European anarchist proponents of violent “propaganda by the deed” who influenced Henrythe Russian Peter Kropotkin, fellow Frenchman Paul Brousse and Italian Errico Malatestahad well-educated minds and, as Merriman makes us see, sympathetic hearts. They would not have been mistaken for waterfront goons. Merriman cites a front-page story from the Feb. 15, 1894, issue of the French republican newspaper Le Matin to show how troubled conservative middleand upper-class citizens were by the fact that Henry was young, clean in appearance, clearly bourgeois and genuinely intellectualin short, not a stereotypical “vulgaire brute:’ Understanding terrorists is a first condition for effectively combating terrorism. We have to get to know how terrorists think and act and why they believe, fanatically, what they believe. However, the very process of trying to get inside the hearts and minds of terrorists is stigmatized. Intellectual empathy, even for the purpose of gaining understanding that can ultimately improve our own security, is usually viewed with suspicion. Questioning why terrorists attack people like us may lead to answers that call for us to examine our own roles in creating and maintaining the social, economic or political conditions that give rise to terrorist acts. This examination is what makes The Dynamite Club so important. Merriman demythologizes Emile Henry and the loosely organized international group of anarchist thinkers who inspired and supported him. Merriman also comments, without being heavy-handed, on the conditions European anarchists were trying to change. The main thing they were trying to change was the extreme disparity in wealth and power that in Paris alone kept hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in abject, anonymous and inescapable poverty. As one anarchist commented, “What a beautiful society when the budget of the state spends four million francs on the opera each year as a subsidy … while poor people try to get by in the streets and public places without anywhere to live:’ Merriman contrasts the beautiful center of Paris with the “enormous suburbs … full of sadness and menace:’ In those neighborhoods, the rate of tuberculosis was five times greater than in the center. Given the financial scandals of the Third Republic, most workers felt an “[u]tter disgust for parliament” and “ignored elections, which had done nothing to improve their lives:’ Anarchists aimed to shake members of the bourgeoisie out of their ignorance about the economic exploitation and intolerable social conditions that made their comfortable lives possible, and to shake downtrodden members of the working class out of their political apathy. Emile Henry believed the comfortable pleasures enjoyed by the thoughtless bourgeois gathered in the Caf Terminus were based on the miseries of the working class. Henry was arrested right after he tossed his bomb, which killed one man, wounded 20 others and, according to Merriman, threw government officials, police and well-heeled Parisians into a panic. Henry was quickly put on trial, found guilty, and guillotined on May 21, 1894. Throughout his trial, he testified rationally and logically. Merriman quotes selectively from Henry’s long, stylish and well-reasoned final statement, admirably withholding explicit judgments. The online Anarchist JANUARY 9, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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