European anarchists in the late 19th century relied on three technologies to commit and then transform human massacre into international political terrorism: the railroad, improved explosives and the telegraph.
Railroads permitted rapid city-to-city travel. Mobile terrorists could scout and then strike soft targets of iconic significance. Improved explosives gave small bands of extremists massively destructive power. The telegraph served as a global megaphone.
Steam-powered iron horses dispensed with the horse teams rapid long-distance transit required and only the wealthy could afford. By the 1880s, western and central European rail provided quick and comparatively inexpensive transport. Our first scenario: From a mainline Austrian bahnhof, a Russian anarchist could quickly bring his violent anti-czarist struggle to a Parisian street.
Improved explosives (TNT was a quantum leap) miniaturized mass murder. Handbags became lethal camouflaged bombs, perfect for turning a chic boulevard cafe into a killing field. Anarchist tracts praised the new explosives. Kings and capitalists were vulnerable. Their police could not protect them or the benighted publics supporting their regimes. Moreover, a terrified public was politically vulnerable.
As for the telegraph, over its lines news of the deed spread virally across Europe and the Atlantic at the speed of light. Hello, modern media and their bastard offspring, modern propaganda by the deed.
Modern airline systems are just a faster rail system, with global connectivity. Jumbo jets are an economic boon. Terrorists, however, can hijack them or use them to commute from Yemen to Detroit. Granted, the Boston terrorist could have been a local. However, the jampacked Boston Marathon crowd was a soft, iconic target with global resonance. In 1894, a French anarchist tried to blow up Britain's Greenwich Observatory (the prime meridian). He failed, but his target had global significance.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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