Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Death and Other Symbolic Acts

A. A violent order is a disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. 

--Wallace Stevens "Connoisseur of Chaos"

"Should we celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden?" asked the TV reporter. "Well," said the thoughtful young lady,"as a Christian, I know we should not be happy about any death, but I think of him as an evil machine, not a human."  Interesting rationalization. Combine "evil" with "nonhuman" and you can justify celebrating death.

Let me add quickly here that I am not implying that the US should not have tracked down and killed bin Laden. Maybe this young woman has watched "Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines" once too often. Still, I can't help wondering how much Osama's death will change anything in the dynamic of terrorism. Not much, methinks. Acts of terrorism are symbolic:  Bring down the World Trade Center, blow up the embassy, sink the warship, kill the evildoers (viewed from both sides of the terrorism divide).

This week marks the 125th anniversary of another violent labor confrontation in U.S. history: the infamous Haymarket Square incident in Chicago.  The stage was set when the company, McCormick Harvesting Machine, locked out workers who were seeking an eight-hour workday.  Workers had come under attack by company-hired Pinkertons during a strike the year before.  This time, strikebreakers were brought into the plant under the protection of hundreds of police.  On May 3, 1886, the unionists rushed forward to confront strikebreakers at the end of their shift.  The police fired on the crowd, and gunfire erupted.

Outraged, local anarchists called for a huge rally to be held in Haymarket Square the following evening.  The large crowd assembled was calm and quiet--until the police tried to clear them from the square.  Someone threw a bomb at the police, the police fired back.  The five minutes of ensuing chaos ended with 8 police dead and 50 wounded, many of these from "friendly" fire, and an estimated 60 casualties among civilians  from the unfriendly variety.

In one of the great miscarriages of justice in US history, four of the union organizers were convicted of murder and hanged in November of 1887.  In 1893, the mayor issued a posthumous pardon, but the damage had been done.  The dream of an eight-hour workday was put on hold for decades.  A company had once again asserted its control over the lives of the workers.

Emma Goldman, lover of fellow-anarchist Alexander Berkman, deemed the Haymarket martyrdoms "the most decisive influence in my existence."  Berkman called the Chicago anarchists "a potent and vital inspiration."  After Berkman's ill-fated 1892 assassination attempt on Frick, Goldman said that Berkman had felt compelled to go to Pittsburgh after reading about Carnegie Steel's throwing Homestead strikers' families out of company homes into the street.

For decades afterward, violence continued in Haymarket Square, this time of the symbolic kind.  Commemorative statues were erected, and repeatedly vandalized. During the Vietnam War "Days of Rage" Weathermen planted a bomb on one and blew it up.  My point is that anarchists have always been big on symbolic acts of violence: blowing up statues, assassinating archdukes at Sarajevo, shooting at evildoing company executives.

The parallels with the Homestead confrontation six years later need not be belabored (pun intended). While the Big Company was the prime mover, Pinkertons, police, strikers, and anarchists all played roles in the outcome.  What good was all this violence? No good at all, for anyone, except the few who owned the companies.  In fact, acts by anarchists ironically set back the labor movement for years--but on the other hand, they wouldn't have been spurred to violence had the companies been more amenable to concessions to workers.

Anarchists, terrorists, and insurgents of all stripe have completely given up on Those In Power and can see no other course to unseat them but violence. Bin Laden had said  in interviews that his initial inspiration to establish al Qaeda came after seeing Palestinian families thrown out of their homes and herded into camps. He had grown increasingly frustrated at instituting reforms in the repressive rule of his home state of Saudi Arabia, and gave up trying.  Did all the killing and destruction he initiated do any good?  No.  But it did accomplish one of the goals of al Qaeda:  Create fear and loathing on both sides of the Have/Have Not global constituencies.  Turn "them" into evil machines.

As we congratulate ourselves on bringing Osama to justice, we should also keep in mind that nothing has changed, really.  The global war goes on, and will go on, out of the control of any single government or movement.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand is dead, but so are 16 million others. A violent order is a disorder.  A great disorder is an order. These two things are one.

No comments:

Post a Comment