Two Boston area immigrants who fell under the spell of a radical ideology that espoused the use of bombs against innocents were allegedly behind the violent April 15 multiple murders.
But it’s not who you think it is. The year was 1920 and the two men were Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Aside from the date and the location, there are other parallels too. And they speak more about us than they do about either Sacco and Vanzetti or the Tsarnaev Brothers.
The nineteen-teens and twenties was a period of great tumult in the United States. After the First World War, which was widely viewed as disastrous mistake for having gotten involved, Americans rejected all things associated with the outside world. The aftermath of the Great War brought upheaval to Europe. Replacing failing empires and monarchies was Russian communism, German socialism, and varying amounts of anarchy seemingly everywhere else.
Today there is the ongoing collapse of the Euro and the demise of Middle Eastern strongmen, and so we fear radical islamism and economic contagion from Cyprus and Greece.
Eight decades ago the end of the war brought economic troubles too. High unemployment, which was widely and mistakenly thought of as a normal post-war adjustment to a lack of military demand and a surplus of returning soldiers, was actually just a result of the post-war continuation of the ongoing de-agriculturalization of the world economy. Regardless of the cause, greater unemployment turned American workers against more recent immigrants who were looking for work too. In 1917 America passed its first immigration restriction laws barring the entry of “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics . . . ” and Asians. Just a year before, an influential eugenicist wrote The Passing of the Great Race that became widely popular. By 1924 America had its first immigration quotas that attempting to freeze in place the country’s racial composition.
Today unemployment is higher than normal as the world deals with the fallout associated with becoming a post-manufacturing economy. Pat Buchanan hawks The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization. Politicians from all sides rail against “illegal” immigration but very often demagogue all immigration.
Both periods were characterized by big fights over petty tangential issues that many prudes insisted contributed to unrest and crime. The Volstead Act passed in the wake of the 18th Amendment gave us Prohibition, while today the President and many Democratic leaders want to outlaw guns. Were those laws to pass, more, not less, crime would be the result, just as more crime was the result of Prohibition too.
Certainly I could carry the parallels further, but let me just conclude with a few questions:
- Was it really necessary to quarantine an entire city to capture a couple criminals whose bombing victims numbered one-one-thousandth of those killed on 9/11?
- Does it not speak volumes about the limits of power and the power of people that the police were unsuccessful during their hours of uninhibited manhunt, but as soon as the house arrest was lifted a citizen found the suspect?
- Is it realistic to expect that among millions of immigrants there won’t be a few criminals, when we have millions of native Americans locked up here at home?
- Is not labeling violence as “terrorism” or “an act of war” just another form of “hate” crime, which attempts to characterize criminals by their thoughts instead of their acts?
- If three dead bombing victims is enough to rescind an American citizen’s constitutional rights, is two? Or one? Or none?