“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana
“Mitchell Palmer would make a great President.”
— Woodrow Wilson
It is tempting, reading the news, speaking to friends and family, and scrolling through social media accounts, to feel as though we have never been as divided politically and socially as a nation than we are right now. Historians will quickly point, however, to various periods in our history in which our political discourse was as divided, or even more so, than it is currently. But regardless of what we think about Jefferson vs. Adams, or the Alien & Sedition Acts, we have a tendency to think of international terrorism, and the resultant fear and xenophobia, as products solely of the modern age.
From the attacks of 9-11, to the Boston Marathon bombing, to several mass shooting incidents, it seems that terrorist attacks have been a staple of news reports in recent years. And there is no doubt that those attacks have helped drive our national discussions on immigration, border control and law enforcement.
In all of the swirl of news stories, you may not have heard about dual bombings that occurred in Atlanta and Seattle. The Atlanta incident was far worse, as the bomb actually detonated. Delivered in the mail to the home of Sen. Thomas Hardwick, the device had been mailed from New York and was disguised to look like a store package. It was even emblazoned with the word “sample” to trick the recipient into opening it. Mrs. Hardwick set the package aside, but it was opened instead by an employee working at the home. As the employee unwrapped the package, a small explosive device, wrapped in shrapnel, detonated, sending metal debris flying around the room. Both women were badly burned, riddled with small injuries, and nearly killed in the explosion.
Thousands of miles away in Seattle, the mayor of that city, who had recently made a number of anti-terrorism statements in his re-election campaign, received a similar package. On alert because of death threats he had received, he called the police and the bomb squad dismantled that explosive device before it could harm anyone.
The reign of mail terror might have continued if not for Charles Caplan, a postal employee in New York City. He was enjoying a day off and scrolling through news stories when he came across one about the Atlanta bombing. Reading the description of the package, he remembered that he had seen no fewer than 16 similar packages at his work station and had set them aside because they had insufficient postage. Horrified that another employee might have put them back in the delivery route, or worse yet might detonate them at the post office, he rushed in to work, only to find them still sitting right on the shelf where he had left them. Each one was a bomb. Searches of other post offices in New York found 34 explosive devices in all. They were addressed to business leaders, Supreme Court Justices, the Attorney General of the United States and others.
Now, if you’re having trouble figuring out how you missed this story, or trying to remember a Sen. Hardwick in Georgia, you might be relieved to hear that this all happened in the spring of 1919, nearly 100 years ago. These attacks were part of a wave of terrorism at that time, connected not to religion, but to politics and anti-government anarchism.
Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, gearing up for a run at the presidency, decried a “Red Menace” that was “aiming a dagger at the very heart of America.” Palmer immediately announced an immigration crackdown that targeted Russian, Italian, German and other Eastern and Central European groups. Thousands were arrested. Palmer’s Justice Department also raided union halls, university campuses and even private homes.
Of course, there was no large scale “Red Menace.” Palmer, like his boss Woodrow Wilson, was a Democrat — his party was generally favorable to labor unions, and Wilson had even been president of Princeton University before heading to the White House. Time and time again, courts found that those arrested by Palmer had done nothing wrong and had no ties to terrorism. Nearly all of them were released, although many had simply been deported.
Although initially supportive of the “Palmer Raids,” the American public turned on Palmer when it began to appear that he was out of control. He sought the 1920 Democratic nomination for president, stating, “I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic.” The Palmer Raids ended up being a detriment to him, and the nomination went instead to Ohio Gov. James M. Cox.
We have a tendency to think that our current circumstances are unique and unyielding. But a review of history usually teaches us that events are cyclical, and that whatever our current situation, it too shall pass.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas and vice president of the Board of Trustees of the Central Ohio Symphony.