The Terrorist Act of September 6, 1901
The horrific events of September 11 have awakened us to the baffling
brutality of terrorism. While the carnage of the assaults is
unprecedented, such calculated violence aimed at breaking the American
spirit has occurred before. In fact, exactly 100 years ago, the United
States was draped in a similar state of mourning and loss. Yet the
nation survived that terrorist crisis without sacrificing its freedoms
or its sense of justice.
The event that provoked such national
despair was the assassination of President William McKinley on September
6, 1901. He was killed by a professed anarchist.named Leon Czolgosz.
58-year-old McKinley, a native of Ohio, was in his second term as
president, having defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1900, for
the second time. McKinley was riding a wave of popularity when he
visited the sprawling Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The
United States had just won the Spanish-American War, and the economy was
enjoying a robust recovery.
On September 6th McKinley arrived at
the Exposition's Temple of Music for a speech and reception. After his
address, an enormous crowd rushed to the stage, and the genial McKinley
began greeting the well-wishers. When the president reached forward to
shake Czolgosz's hand, the assassin raised a revolver concealed in a
handkerchief and fired two shots. One bullet grazed the president's
breast and did little harm. But the second entered the abdomen,
penetrated the stomach, and lodged in his back. Pandemonium ensued. As
McKinley clutched his mid-section and fell into the arms of an aide,
agents knocked Czolgosz to the ground and began pummeling him. The
wounded president pleaded, "Don't let them hurt him. Be easy with him,
Meanwhile, the bloodied assassin was hauled off to police
headquarters. The 28-year-old son of Polish immigrants, Leon Czolgosz
(pronounced Choal-gosh) was an unemployed laborer who had embraced
anarchism, a political philosophy then popular in Europe that rejected
all forms of government. Militant anarchists at the turn of the century
believed that all rulers were the enemy of the people. Anarchists had
recently assassinated King Humbert of Italy and were plotting to kill
more European leaders.
McKinley's surgeon was initially
optimistic that the president would recover. Within a few days, however,
gangrene set in and McKinley faded quickly. In his final hours, the
president called together his friends and his wife, Ida.
"Good-bye---good bye, all," he said on September 13, just hours before
dying. "It is God's way. His will, not ours, be done."
president's death stunned the nation. Newspapers were bordered in black,
flags were lowered, the stock market plummeted, and the entire nation
grieved. After McKinley's burial, a wave of vindictive anger spread
through America. Vigilantism ran amok. Vengeful mobs gathered outside
the Buffalo jail where Czolgosz was awaiting trial. "Lynch him!" "Hang
him!" the crowd demanded. The enraged country demanded that the assassin
be executed and that all anarchists be arrested and deported. Federal
agents fanned out across the nation, seeking out possible accomplices,
and questioning hundreds of anarchist sympathizers.
In the end,
however, investigators determined that Czolgosz had acted alone. His
trial in late September lasted only eight hours and 25 minutes. The
verdict was uncontested. Czolgosz's final words before his October
electrocution did little to ease American concerns. "I killed the
president," he said, "because he was an enemy of good people, good
working people. I am not sorry for my crime."
President Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency, he braced the
nation for more acts of terrorism, but reassured the public that
democracy would prevail. "Anarchy is a crime against the whole human
race and all mankind should band against the anarchist," he told
Congress. "This great country will not fall into anarchy, and if
anarchists should ever become a serious menace to its institutions, they
would not merely be stamped out but would involve in their own ruin
every active or passive sympathizer with their doctrines."
threat of widespread anarchy soon subsided, and the nation gradually
returned to its normal routine and everyday concerns. Roosevelt's energy
and vision helped restore public confidence. Of course, absorbing a
single tragic death by a single assassin was much easier than our
current challenge of countering an elusive network of terrorism. But
with wise planning, judicious actions, and patient persistence, we too
will prevail, and America will once again emerge from the shadow of fear
and tragedy a stronger and more secure republic.