When (Canadian) fiction imitates (terrorist) life

A lot of people mock Canadian television. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in southwestern Ontario we all watched American networks and shows, not Canadian ones. The former were exciting and funny and popular while the latter were, well, Canadian.

This criticism of mine is probably unfair as there is some really good Canadian TV. Some great examples are Corner Gas about life in a small Saskatchewan town, or Schitt’s Creek, or This Hour Has 22 Minutes which, in my opinion, ranks among the top satires in the world.

One more show that has received some international attention – Canadians love it when outsiders notice us! – is Murdoch Mysteries, a series about a police detective with the Toronto Constabulary straddling the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally based on a set of novels by British/Canadian writer Maureen Jennings, the program is now in its 13th season.

The initial episode in that season looked at the suffragette movement of the era – the campaign by women to gain the right to vote. We see the opposition of men – and some women – to this fundamental part of our society, one that we certainly take for granted over a century later. And, this being a police drama, we obviously see violence and a death, this one by a bomb (I won’t spoil it by telling you who was behind the bombing).

Except that this particular bomb had a name: an Orsini bomb. Named after a 19th century Italian anarchist, Felice Orsini, who tried to assassinate French Emperor Napoleon III in January 1858. His device did go off and did kill several people, although not his intended target, and Orsini was arrested and later executed for his efforts.

Originally designed by a Hungarian artillery officer, the Orsini bomb has been described as a “remarkable terrorist IED in the form of a hand grenade.” The entire fill of this grenade was a primary explosive, mercury fulminate, while the protuberances on the outside mounted crushable percussion caps, as used on small arms of the time. Apparently one such bomb was unearthed in a field in Arkansas in the 1950s.

Homemade weapons like these are still with us. One blog I read notes that similar devices are being used in Syria’s civil war. Rebels claim that ammunition shortages have hurt their activities and they have been forced to improvise with locally-made ordnance. I would not be surprised if similar technology was present in other wars and conflicts.

The interesting part of all this is the link to the anarchist wave of terrorism prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the term ‘anarchist’ is actually used at one point in the episode). As described by many, including US terrorism scholar David Rapoport in his ‘wave theory’, anarchists targeted heads of state for decades and many of their attacks saw the use of bombs, Orsini or otherwise. The reign of terror by these actors shook Europe and North America for decades.

Of course we still have anarchists among us: the Black Bloc is one such beast. I don’t know if crude bombs are their preferred modus operandi given the easy access to powerful firearms. No one talks of Orsini bombs nowadays: still I find that this Canadian crime drama is a great reminder that terrorism is not merely a recent phenomenon.

As we say in (French) Canada: plus ca change…

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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