Today in Terrorism: September 16, 1920

We often hear of mass bombings when vehicles are jammed with explosives or IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Cars, trucks, motorcycles, even donkeys (!) have been used in this terrorist technique. The result is usually the same: mass carnage and high death totals.

What would you say to me if I told you that this modus operandi is actually a lot older than we think? Say, almost a century older?

On this day in 1920 a horse-drawn wagon passed by lunchtime crowds on New York’s iconic Wall Street, stopped across the street from the headquarters of the JP Morgan bank and went boom. Packed with 100 pounds (45 kg) of  dynamite and 500 pounds (230 kg) of heavy, cast-iron weights, a timer set off a detonation that killed 30 people outright (8 more later died of their injuries) and seriously wounded 143. It was the biggest single act of terrorism in the world to that day. There is an excellent book on this incident called Buda’s Wagon: A brief history of the car bomb.

The perpetrator was a man named Mario Buda and he was an anarchist. In case you had forgotten about those guys or thought that they were invented by the self-styled Black Bloc, they have been around a long time. In fact, the anarchists were the initial actors in David Rapoport’s seminal work on the ‘four waves’ of terrorism. Beginning in the late 19th century, anarchists were behind several very high level acts of terrorism: the assassinations of Russian Tsar Alexander II, French President Sadi Carnot, Italian King Umberto, US President McKinley and many, many more. They also championed the ‘propaganda of the deed’, which was a political action meant to be exemplary to others and serve as a catalyst for revolution.

The anarchist wave petered out around the time of WWI, thus placing Mr. Buda’s act at the tail end of this campaign of terrorism. It did not go away completely though, and seems to be making somewhat of a comeback today.

More importantly the anarchists perfected the use of dynamite and explosives, a tactic that was later adopted by many other terrorist groups. We associate this strategy today with vehicles and suicide bombers tied to the Taliban, Islamic State, Boko Haram and other Islamist extremist groups but it would be good to remember that it was in some ways the Tamil Tigers (aka the LTTE) in Sri Lanka and India who garnered a lot of attention in the 1980s, especially with their use of female suicide bombers.

I am sure that Mario Buda had no idea what he had set lose 99 years ago today. All I know is that we are still paying the price.

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