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Sat Apr 27, 2013, 01:18 PM

The Boston backlash is rooted in America’s paranoid past

The Boston backlash is rooted in America’s paranoid past

Right-wingers who exploit the Boston tragedy to attack immigrants are replaying a script that goes back 112 years


A terrorist attack, small in scale but brutal in effect, shocks the nation. The leading perpetrator is an American with foreign connections, apparently linked – at least in his own mind – to a worldwide movement of violent extremists. Furthermore, this young man in his late 20s with the unpronounceable name had attracted suspicion in the past and struck some observers as unstable, although even members of his own family did not suspect he was planning such a spectacular crime.

In the aftermath of the attack, some people assume it was the work of a sinister global conspiracy against America, despite little evidence. Others see an unemployed and alienated loner, unable to connect to the promise of the American dream, who turned to extremism out of personal despair or mental illness. Many political commentators call for a crackdown on immigration, the restriction of civil liberties and an aggressive military-style counterattack against anti-American radicalism, both at home and abroad. As the nation’s energetic young president puts it, counteracting this tide of violence is the most significant question facing the United States, and one that could even endanger the nation’s future.

Sounds familiar, right? Except that I’m not talking about the Boston bombing and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I’m talking about the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley by an unemployed 28-year-old anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, a traumatic but poorly understood event that was one of the crucial pivot points in early 20th-century history. (It was the third presidential assassination inside 40 years — so much for the bucolic 19th century — and propelled the little-known Teddy Roosevelt into the White House.) I’m not sure whether to view the similarities between these events 112 years apart as an illustration of Karl Marx’s famous maxim about history repeating itself, or just of the principle that nobody in American political life ever strays far from the script. Either way, the McKinley assassination looks like one of those scenes we keep replaying, “Groundhog Day”-style, because we haven’t worked out its meaning or message.

Superficially, the America of McKinley’s time – a nation of 76 million people dominated by an Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite, in which only a handful of nonwhites and women were even permitted to vote — has little in common with the America of Barack Obama. But the nativist paranoia about alien ideologies and alien religions remains strikingly familiar, as does the quest for “enemy combatants” behind every door and under every sofa. If you ask me, the real enemy combatants, now as in 1901, are right here at home, ready and willing to surrender our remaining rights and freedoms in the name of rooting out the supposedly imported virus of evil.

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