Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “The Anarchist and His Victim”
Date of publication: 12 September 1901
Volume number: 50
Issue number: 1289
|“The Anarchist and His Victim.” Truth 12 Sept. 1901 v50n1289: pp. 659-60.|
|McKinley assassination (international response); William McKinley; assassination; anarchism (international response); anarchism (dealing with).|
|Aristogeiton; Marcus Junius Brutus; Gaius Cassius Longinus; Leon Czolgosz; Harmodius; William McKinley; Jean Baptiste Sipido; Victoria.|
The Anarchist and His Victim
There has been nothing worse in the annals of
political assassination than the attempt on the life of President McKinley.
Politically, the crime is almost more motiveless than the murder of the late
King of Italy, or even the last President of the French Republic. A crowned
head is hateful by instinct and tradition to a certain class of political fanatic,
and a French President is also the representative of political ideas which are
repugnant to more than one fiercely antagonistic section of his countrymen.
But an American President occupies his post with the assent and approval of
the whole nation. Whatever differences may surround his election, once elected
he is acknowledged by all parties as the head of the State. In that capacity
he is regarded with a feeling of loyalty akin to that which we entertain for
our Sovereign, and probably more universal because it is less personal. And
Mr. McKinley has gained in an eminent degree the admiration and affection of
his countrymen. He has written his name large on the history of the Republic.
He is the author of a commercial policy which, whatever we on this side may
think about it, has brought unprecedented prosperity to the country and placed
it at the head of the nations of the world in industrial and commercial progress.
He has carried out successfully a war with a European Power of which his country
has every reason to be proud, and, whether for good or evil, he has taken the
first step in the establishment of an American dominion across the seas. Like
every American President, he is a man of irreproachable life and character,
and it is not likely that he has ever made a personal enemy, either in private
or public life. That such a man should be selected as the victim of a foul and
dastardly murder must excite horror among all sorts and conditions of men throughout
the world. The author of such an act can only excite feelings of execration,
and one sympathises involuntarily with the American crowd which did its best
to lynch him in defiance of the law.
The repetition of crimes of this class—one of the ugliest features of modern civilisation—prompts on all sides the question, What can be done to suppress them? The question is a most difficult one, because the criminal act has its origin in impulses totally different from all others to restrain which laws are made. Occasionally, of course, political assassinations are merely particular instances of homicidal mania. The maniac must kill somebody, and his victim is selected merely because he happens to be a prominent individual whose personality has impressed the mind of the lunatic and set it working against him. Occasionally the act is prompted by a morbid craving for notoriety and distinction, not materially different from insanity. It is no more possible  to prevent crimes of this class than to prevent any private individual from being attacked by a madman—or, for the matter of that, by a mad bull. There are also political assassinations which are prompted by the desire to overturn a dynasty or a government, and from the days of Harmodius and Aristogeiton or Brutus and Cassius downwards such deeds have been regarded rather as acts of war than ordinary crimes. When the end has been gained it has generally been held to justify the means, and the author has gone down to posterity as a hero. When the act, or the attempt, has not led to any practical result, the author has paid the penalty in the ordinary course. It is the business of rulers and Governments to secure themselves against such violent measures, either by avoiding the provocation of such desperate hostility among their subjects, or by fortifying themselves securely through their soldiers and policemen. As long as the success of the attempt is doubtful and the penalty certain, only intolerable political grievances or a degree of partisan fanaticism hardly distinguishable from insanity will prompt a man to risk his own life in the attempt to remove an obnoxious ruler.
But when we come to the Anarchist the circumstances are somewhat different. The motive which prompts assassination in this case is not antipathy to a particular ruler or a particular form of government, but hostility to all government in every shape. It matters not to the assassin whether his victim is an hereditary monarch or an elected President of a Republic. It matters not whether he is a monster of political iniquity or a wise and enlightened statesman holding office by the will of the whole community. He is the representative of organised law and government, and as such he is doomed to death. It is quite true that the state of mind which impels a man to murder under such circumstances, with the moral certainty that his own death will be the consequence, and without the slightest probability that the existing social and political order of things will be in the least affected by the result, looks uncommonly like insanity once again. I dare say that the expert in mental science would find little difference between the mental condition of the lunatic who fired at Queen Victoria under an imaginary sense of personal grievance, or the crack-brained youth Sipido, who made his attempt on our present King, and the Anarchist who has shot Mr. McKinley in the belief that he was discharging a duty to humanity. But there is one difference which is of some consequence in practice. It is that Czolgosz, or whatever his name is, is the representative of a propaganda which is being carried on actively in all countries. Whether or not it be true, as he asserts in the confession that has been published, that he was inspired to his crime by one particular lecture which he heard delivered by a lady, it is quite certain that his crime is the result of definite and systematic teaching acting on a mind predisposed, for one reason or another, to put such teaching into practice. No one is more averse than I am to any restriction on legitimate liberty of opinion. Whether a man be a Socialist or an Individualist, a Royalist or a Republican, whether his views be moderate or extreme, he has a right to hold them. On the other hand, if the State believes that the expression and propagation of his views endanger its safety, it clearly has a right to silence him, though it may not be expedient to use that right. There are laws in this country which can be put in force against those who propagate sedition; and in most countries there are still stronger laws on this point, and still less scruple about using them. When it comes to the preaching of doctrines designed to destroy organised society altogether, and inconsistent with the maintenance of government in any shape, it is clear that society has the right to defend itself against such doctrines, if it thinks fit. The day may come yet when it will be a question whether the Anarchists are to destroy society or whether society is to destroy the Anarchists. I do not think that that day is very near; and measures designed to repress freedom of opinion in any shape must always be used with the greatest caution, for they are apt to have an effect precisely opposite to what is intended. But to systematically inculcate the advisability of exterminating persons connected with the Government, or even to enunciate vague general principles which may lead any crack-brained enthusiast who imbibes them to the conclusion that he will benefit humanity by shooting the first public official he comes across, whether a policeman or a Republican President, is clearly a crime in itself, and must be dealt with as such if it assumes serious dimensions. At the same time do not let us forget that Anarchism is a disease, and that the most effectual mode of dealing with it, like other diseases, is to remove the unhealthy conditions from which it springs.