The Writings of Carl Schurz/Murder as a Political Agency


The assassination of Canovas del Castillo has, as is usual under such circumstances, caused lively speculation as to what the political consequences of that tragic event may be. Will it improve the chances of the Carlists in Spain? Will it strengthen the Republican movement in that kingdom? Will it bring about a change in the policy of the Spanish Government with regard to Cuba? The probability is that nothing will happen that would not have been brought about by other causes—causes of a general nature far more potential than the disappearance of a single individual from the political stage. It is remarkable how little the course of history has been affected by sudden removal of men of power who at the time seemed to hold in their hands the destinies of their countries or even of the world. The dagger that killed Cæsar did not prevent the development of imperialism in Rome. The Roman Republic was ripe for it, and it came. The violent deaths of various Roman emperors utterly failed to change the character of the Roman Empire. As to similar occurrences in more modern times, the murder of William the Silent did not prevent the deliverance of the Netherlands from the Spanish yoke. It has been said that the assassination of Henry IV. of France precipitated the religious conflicts which followed it, desolating a part of continental Europe, and that had he lived longer those conflicts might have been entirely prevented; but a thorough study of the history of that period authorizes the opinion that those calamities would have ultimately come had Henry IV. not been murdered. The stabbing or strangling to death of Russian Czars resulted only in changes of persons. The dynamite bomb which killed Alexander II. left Russia substantially in the same condition in which it had found it. Neither can it be said that the assassinations of Republican Presidents in the United States and in France produced any effects of lasting consequence. That of Abraham Lincoln certainly did not save the Southern Confederacy from collapse, and those of Garfield and of Carnot brought about virtually only the substitution of one chief magistrate for another.

Without underrating the influence exercised by great men upon the course of events, and leaving aside speculations as to what possibly might have happened had the bloody deeds in question been committed at different periods or under different circumstances, and taking into consideration only the facts as they are recorded, it may be said that the murders of political potentates, for the accomplishment of whatever ends they may have been designed, were, as a rule, mere ineffectual atrocities. In some cases the evident purpose for which those acts of violence were intended served to make them intelligible. The tyrannicide who imagined the deliverance of his countrymen from usurpation or oppression, and the religious fanatic who schemed to help or avenge his church can be understood. Their motives had a simple and logical application to an actual state of things, and they aimed at the accomplishment of immediate and definite results. In some historic cases the character and the motives of the perpetrators distinguished their acts so much from common crime, that the criminal nature of the deeds was almost wholly overlooked in popular judgment. But of late years we are startled by a class of assassinations which can be explained only upon theories so complicated and so wholly unnatural that we seem to stand in the presence of an insolvable psychological puzzle.

When we speak of the “anarchist” we mean to designate by that name a human being who is in a general way the enemy of all that exists, and who seeks to overthrow it by any means, however criminal and atrocious, but who has never been able to give an account in the slightest degree intelligible of the kind of society he thinks of putting in the place of that which he wants to destroy. We hear, indeed, some wild talk about the establishment of a social order, or disorder, without government and without laws and courts of justice, in which everybody can do what he or she pleases, and that when everybody can do what he or she pleases, everybody will do right, and have enough of the good things of the world, and be happy. But all this is so absolutely inconceivable to the human imagination, not to speak of human reason, that only insane people can be supposed to entertain it. The means by which the establishment of this social condition is to be accomplished are equally inexplicable as to their adaptation to the ulterior purpose. We have to draw our conclusions from things which have actually happened. A dynamite bomb is dropped by an anarchist into a church, or a theater or a public procession. A number of people, most of them entirely unknown to the anarchist, are killed or maimed by the explosion. The anarchist and his accomplices are caught, tried and executed as murderers. Another anarchist kills the chief of the state, or the minister, under whose government the trial and the executions have taken place. This anarchist, when caught, explains his crime by saying that he had to avenge the death of his executed, or, as he calls it, murdered friends. He leaves the inference that, if he is executed, one of his friends will in turn avenge his execution in the same way.

Now, what can all this mean? The anarchist who kills a President or minister, on the pretense of avenging the execution of another anarchist murderer, may possibly imagine that if this process goes on with some regularity public officers will become afraid to hurt anarchists, and that the anarchists may then drop dynamite bombs wherever and whenever they please with impunity. This kind of reasoning is built upon the fantastic assumption that there is no courage left in human society except that of the anarchists. Still, however absurd the premise, there is a semblance of logic in it. But it does not explain the reason for their throwing dynamite bombs in to churches and theaters, among promiscuous gatherings of inoffensive people, to kill anybody that may be about. The only thing approximating an explanation that has been said is that the plan of the anarchists is to throw society, by these seemingly causeless murders, into a condition of abject terror, and thereby to create a general state of the intensest bewilderment and confusion, in which, everybody else having completely lost his head, the anarchists are the only people who have kept their five senses together and know what they want, and that then they can step in and regulate things according to their notions. The idea that by this sort of terrorism human society, as at present organized, could be moved to abdicate all its functions, and to deliver itself into the hands of an organization of murderers, is so absolutely preposterous that its serious conception can be attributed only to an utterly deranged state of mind.

There may be some persons sincerely cherishing such amazing fancies, and willing to live and die for them; but among the more active element of the anarchists characters of a very different kind have been discovered—persons too lazy to do any honest work, who found that they could get along without it by devoting themselves to the destruction of all existing institutions, and some others, too, who, as judicial proceedings in France showed a few years ago, made their living as footpads, or burglars, or forgers and what not, thus punishing society for their own benefit in detail before reforming it in bulk. Such anarchists certainly never felt themselves as Brutuses and Cassiuses seeing in accumulated wealth and in every sort of power a Cæsar to stab, or as philosophers and prophets only a century or two ahead of their time. They are simply common criminals of the worst kind. But they form an essential part of the militant force of anarchism.

That the anarchists cannot attain any of the ulterior objects attributed to them is a matter of course. But their existence nevertheless imposes a serious problem upon society. It is to defend itself against a secret combination of crazy people and criminals—that is, to punish and so far as possible to prevent the atrocities which form their trade, without trenching upon the legitimate and necessary rights and liberties of the citizen. In this country the danger of an encroachment upon those rights and liberties by such methods of repression and prevention, although not altogether absent, is far less threatening than in European states, the Governments of which have a tendency to aggrandize the police power, and are prone to avail themselves of any apparent or real public danger, or any panicky feeling among the people, to this end at the expense of free institutions. While the crimes of the anarchists are apt to produce such panicky feelings on account of the prominence of their victims, there is really no reason to apprehend that they may not be prevented and punished by the same appliances which are sufficient for the breaking up and punishment of bands of brigands or counterfeiters of money. To extirpate their so-called doctrines those measures are certainly the worst which would make the law-abiding citizen fear for his own rights.

  1. From Harper's Weekly of Aug. 28, 1897. Grateful acknowledgments are made to Harper & Brothers for generous permission to reprint this article.