Gilbert: Before 9/11

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Visit: Remembering 9/11

(HOST) As America prepares to observe the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, VPR commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert offers some historical context.

(GILBERT) A terrorist attack in mid September. High casualties. The site: New York City’s financial district, the epicenter of global capitalism and banking.

No, we’re not talking about 9/11, but an event that happened on September 16, 1920, ninety-one years ago.

At noon on that date a horse-drawn wagon stopped at the intersection of Broad Street and Wall Street. It was called simply "the Corner," and it was the location of J. P. Morgan and Company, the world’s most powerful financial institution. A timer was attached to a hundred pounds of dynamite and five hundred pounds of cast iron window sash weights. When it detonated, the window weights became deadly shrapnel. Thirty-eight people died; hundreds were wounded. Until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it was the worst act of terrorism in American history.

If you visit Wall Street, look for the pockmarks from the explosion on the white marble building at 23 Wall Street.

Those responsible for the bombing were never found, despite a three-year international investigation that involved the head of the Justice Department’s new division that investigated radical groups, a young man named J. Edgar Hoover. Also involved was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who’s remembered now principally as the architect of the Palmer Raids, aggressive efforts to arrest and deport left-wing radicals. Many people were highly critical of Palmer’s methods and willingness to short-circuit the legal system and deportation processes.

It was a scary time. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had stirred concerns about anarchists, Bolsheviks, and labor agitators. In the previous year or so, thirty mail bombs had been sent to prominent government officials and businessmen, and bombs had been detonated in numerous American cities.

The Wall Street bombing isn’t particularly well-known today . But when it happened, it struck fear into the nation. We know now that the sky didn’t fall, and neither the country nor capitalism collapsed either; the anarchists or whoever planted the bomb didn’t win the day. But of course at the time, people on Wall Street, the government, and American citizens generally didn’t know what would happen next.

Today we can be confident that 9/11 won’t be forgotten, as the Wall Street Bombing largely has been. What we don’t know today is how long the shadow of those terrorist attacks of ten years ago will be. The shadow of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941 was bloody but, in fact, comparatively short. (World War II lasted less than four years, and relations with Japan were normalized not many years later.) The shadow of the American Civil War, on the other hand, has stretched out for more than a century – and indeed still lingers in some ways today, 150 years later.

If 9/11 began a new chapter in American – or even world – history, how long will that chapter be? And what will the world look like when the battle with radical Islam is played out? Only time will tell.

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