Listening to radio, watching television, and reading the representatives of these two competing perspectives in the media conjures the case of Leon Czolgosz, the self-proclaimed anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley on September 6, 1901. Czolgosz was one of seven children born to Polish immigrants in 1873. His mother died when he was quite young and he entered the workforce to support his family. After working in a glass factory and a wire mill in Cleveland, Ohio, he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1897 and returned home to his family farm. It was at this time that Czolgosz embraced anarchism after reading anarchist newspapers, listening to speeches given by Emma Goldman and other anarchists, and attending meetings organized by a variety of anarchist groups. He even met Goldman, if briefly, as she left her hotel after giving a speech in Cleveland and he contacted Goldman and the publishers of the Chicago anarchist periodical Free Society in July 1901.
Czolgosz was greatly influenced by what he read in Free Society and other anarchist publications, in particular their unabashed support for Gaetano Bresci’s assassination of King Umberto of Italy in July 1900. He vocally identified with the goals and aspirations of the anarchist revolutionaries advocating attentats, or, “propaganda of the deed,” the assassinations of heads of state, industry and religion. After receiving numerous letters from Czolgosz inquiring how to get in contact with anarchist secret societies that advocated violence, the editors of Free Society went so far as to claim he was an agent provocateur. Historians remain unable to directly connect Czolgosz with any of the anarchist groups operating at the time.
The prosecution and many mainstream newspapers were convinced Czolgosz was part of a larger anarchist plot. Yet even if Czolgosz was not a member of any anarchist organization, anarchists were viewed as providing motivation and justification for the assassination. The Buffalo Evening News opined:
Emma Goldman bears a share of the crime; so do the publishers of anarchist papers and documents. The men who lecture in favor of anarchism share the crime of Czolgosz. The New York conclaves, the Chicago societies, the Cleveland clubs, the anarchists in Boston, Philadelphia and other places—they all bear a share in the great crime. They aided and stimulated the weak-minded Czolgosz.
While Thomas Sebastian Byrne writing for the New York Times claimed, “. . . men who profess or proclaim doctrines of which such unspeakable crimes are the issue should be made to understand and to feel that they cannot teach them in this country, nor can they themselves enjoy this country’s hospitality.”
There was a strong element of nativism in the case with some periodicals attempting to link anarchist violence to a recent increase in immigrants arriving from eastern and southern Europe. The Ohio Farmer (September 12, 1901) noted:
Organized anarchy in this free country must be declared a capital crime. There is no occasion for its existence here. Immigration laws must be made more strict and be more rigidly enforced, and keep out the murderous, fanatical dregs of Europe, who seek our shores only because there is greater opportunity to carry out their dark and bloody designs.
Radical support for the assassination was mixed with a majority of anarchists distancing themselves from the action and a small minority, including Goldman, defending Czolgosz. The police and prosecutor unsuccessfully attempted to link Goldman to Czolgosz, arguing she planned the attack. Czolgosz claimed one of Goldman’s speeches inspired his criminal behavior but denied she had any direct role in the assassination.
Five years after the trial Max Baginsky penned a supportive article in Goldman’s Mother Earth (October, 1906). After insinuating that Czolgosz was psychologically disturbed, Baginsky wrote:
The act of Czolgosz was the explosion of inner rebellion; it was directed against the savage authority of the money power, and against the government that aids its mammonistic crimes…His large, dreamy eyes must have beheld in the distance the rising dawn, heralding a new and glorious day. Five years have since rolled into eternity. His spirit still hovers over me. In tender love I lay these immortelles on his grave.
Goldman wrote a short essay in Czolgosz’ defense in 1911 which compared him to Jesus and proclaimed he died for the sins of the American people:
He suffered for them, endured humiliation for them, gave his life for them. His tragedy consisted in his great and intense love for the people, but unlike many of his brother slaves he could neither submit nor bow his neck. Thus he had to die.
Whether Czolgosz was a member of an anarchist cell dedicated to assassination and terrorism is not in dispute. He was not. However, he was a self-identified anarchist who held a personal identification with the goals of anarchist ideology and a willingness to act based on those ideological assumptions. So was Czolgosz a terrorist? Most historians today agree that he was.
This brings me to Hasan. The intelligence community, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, informs the public there is no evidence that Hasan was assisted in his act nor that he was operating as part of a larger terrorist plot. However, in similarity to Czolgosz, he exhibited an affinity—if no direct affiliation—with a radical ideology that supports the murder of its opponents. Like Czolgosz, he committed a terrorist act promoted by pathology and ideology.
What do we know about Hasan’s contact and connections with radical Islamist organizations like al-Queda? According to media reports, Hasan became more devout after the death of his parents. The Department of Defense was aware Hasan corresponded with radical imam Anwar al-Aulaqi and used to attend his mosque in Falls Church, Virginia. Al-Aulaqi supports a holy war against the United States and knew three of the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center who also attended his Falls Church mosque.
National Public Radio reported psychiatrists at Walter Reed and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences were concerned that Hasan might be psychotic. There was the power-point presentation Hasan gave at Walter Reed where he expressed that suicide bombings against American military personnel are justified. Titled, “The Koranic World View As It Relates To Muslims In The Military,” the presentation stated “Fighting to establish an Islamic state to please God, even by force, is condoned by the [sic.] Islam,” and recommended all Muslims in the American military be given the right to be released from combat duty as conscientious objectors. And there is the eyewitness testimony of victims who heard Hasan shout “Allahu Akbar” (or something similar) as he opened fire on them. Despite increasing evidence that Hasan had mental issues and identified with the goals and aspirations of radical Islam, officials and colleagues were evidently loathe to act in fear they would be identified as “Islamophobic” and possibly damage their career opportunities.
In a marked difference from newspaper accounts of the Czolgosz affair, some of the mainstream media today has avoided linking Hasan’s actions with his apparent belief in a radical ideology. The notable exceptions are conservative outlets like Fox News, talk radio and blogs. Some of these sources suggest linkages with al-Queda and a broader conspiracy that is likely inaccurate. Paralleling the past, there is also an element of nativism in some conservative accounts, including calls for halting immigration from Muslim countries. But I am puzzled why so many liberal periodicals are going to such great lengths to argue that ideology played no role in the murders.
As with Czolgosz, some radicals have mobilized to support Hasan. A Facebook group has been established to rally to his defense and writers for extremist Islamist and left-wing websites have tied themselves in knots trying to justify the attacks as understandable given reports that Hasan suffered from discrimination. They claim the prospect of deployment drove him to act in this despicable manner, or that he suffers from “Secondary Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or he is a man who simply cared too much. Others are more forthright about their beliefs. In the case of al-Aulaqi, Hasan’s act was justified against a tyrannical regime that paid for his medical education and promoted him to the rank of major. Al-Aulaqi went so far as to commend the attack on his website imploring other Muslims to “follow in the footsteps of men like Nidal.”