Letter bombs are not new instruments of terror and violence. In April and June 1919, about three dozen letter bombs were mailed to prominent Americans. Two people were killed and one injured.
Yet, in the aftermath, the nation panicked. Then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer ordered "raids" to apprehend the perpetrators, raids that would bear his name. Tens of thousands were detained under the 1917 espionage and 1918 sedition Laws. About 600 immigrants were deported without due process.
Among the targets were banker J.P. Morgan, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Palmer, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and other well-known Americans. A night watchman on Wall Street was killed when one of the letter bombs exploded. The anarchist Carlo Valdinoca killed himself mishandling a bomb he was planting at the attorney general's house. A maid lost both hands opening one of the bombs.
In September 1920, a car bomb exploded on Wall Street, killing 38 and wounding hundreds. Despite massive manhunts, the perpetrators of the letter and car bombs were never caught, although anarchists were accused of the former and suspects named but never held for the latter. These bombings formed the prelude to the Red Scare of 1920-21.
What was profoundly different then was national panic over these terrorist acts. Terror has long been employed by individuals and politically motivated groups. The last two decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th saw a slew of assassinations of kings, queens and presidents.
Dynamite had become a weapon of choice. Riots in the United States over nationality, race and labor were frequent and violent then. And in the war to end all wars, tens of millions perished, followed by the influenza pandemics that were even more deadly. Yet, this handful of bombs a century ago had extraordinary political aftershocks that took several years to dissipate.
Last week, about a dozen letter bombs were mailed to a number of senior Democratic critics of Donald Trump, including former President Barack Obama. A suspect, Cesar Sayoc, was quickly apprehended by the FBI. But, unlike a century ago, last week's bombings will have few political consequences. Indeed, the murders of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday eclipsed the bombings as front-page news.
Massive arrests and abrogation of laws in America have not followed. In 2009, Washington, D.C., residents were more terrified by two snipers shooting people from the trunk of their car, often as potential victims were filling up their autos at gas stations, than by these letter bombs. And not too long ago, the threat of anthrax-infected letters was made very real.
Why are last week's bombing attempts a one- or two-day story without the impact of the 1919-20 letter bombs? Violence is far less widespread today than a century ago. But instantaneous global communications report every or any terrorist or horrific event to billions, creating the reverse perception.
One answer is that after Sept. 11, and the seeming daily reports of acts of extreme violence, including the extraordinary murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month, people may have become inoculated against these acts of violence and destruction regarding each as the new normal. As acts of terror have become commonplace in schools, houses of worship and shopping malls, has the nation accepted these acts of violence as unexceptional?
There is a more sinister explanation that should surely shock us more than the actual danger posed by letter bombs and snipers. American politics are fragmented and polarized. The chilling question is whether American politics have degenerated to the point where violence and terror are now acceptable and viable tools to support or advance particular political views and even to gain power.
The political use of violence is as old as mankind. At the time of the 1919-20 bombings, the Bolshevik Revolution used terror to overthrow the Russian regime. Adolph Hitler had not yet written Mein Kampf. However, war had disrupted the international order.
Fortunately, today may be different. Yet political divisions have become sharper. Apathy to acts of violence is not necessarily fatal. The overreaction a century ago to terror has so far not been repeated.
Lurking, however, is the use of terror to represent political differences. The perpetrators of the letter bombs and the synagogue killings do not have the appeal and cunning of Lenin and Hitler. That does not mean all is well. Perhaps future wielders of violence will be more competent. That prospect should terrify us.