History

The Far Right Is Claiming That Letter Bombs Are a “Liberal Tactic”

But history shows that they are equal-opportunity terrorism.

Theodore Kaczynski is led out by U.S. Marshals in Sacramento, California, after admitting to being the Unabomber.
Theodore Kaczynski is led out by U.S. Marshals in Sacramento, California, after admitting to being the Unabomber.
Bob Galbraith/AFP/Getty Images

“Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Rush Limbaugh said, deploying his famous common sense to explain why the mail bombs received by prominent Democrats like Maxine Waters and Eric Holder this week must be part of a false flag operation designed to push sympathy to the left before the midterm elections. A range of conservative commentators, including Ann Coulter and Bill Mitchell, hopped on this bandwagon on Wednesday, using their platforms to argue that the bombings have “Soros astroturfing written all over them.”

There’s an implication of cowardice in Limbaugh’s diagnosis—is it only liberals who mail bombs, because they prefer to murder at a distance?—but the argument, of course, is ridiculous. Mail bombing, just like other kinds of terrorist bombings, knows no party. Since the 18th century, governments, radical political groups, and mentally ill “lone wolves” on the left and the right have used the tactic to eliminate rivals and terrorize those they hate.

The first recorded mail bomb was sent as part of the “Bandbox Plot,” which took its name from a hatbox sent to Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, who was the British lord treasurer in 1712. The box contained three pistols with a thread fastened to the lid; if opened in the ordinary manner, the recipient would be shot. According to the story, the Earl began to open the box when author Jonathan Swift, who happened to be present in the room, suspected something and disarmed the device. Public opinion blamed the Whigs (the party you might call “liberal,” though that’s always an imperfect designation when talking about historical politics) for the bombing. Other anti-establishment plots supposedly hatched by Whigs at the time were later deemed rumor and hoax.

From high-stakes political fights to the petty and domestic, we go. In 1889, the London Times reported that Edward Richard White, a recently laid-off artist who had been employed by the Tussauds to insert their wax figures’ facial hair, sent the business a “small cigar-box” that contained a half-pound of gunpowder. The box was equipped with “some rough glass-paper” attached to the lid which, “if the box had been opened quickly, would have caused two fuses to rub against the glass paper, when an explosion would have followed.” In a bitter touch, the parcel “was fastened with a piece of gold lace cord such as was used for dressing the wax figures in the exhibition.”

In the United States, anarchists following the Italian immigrant Luigi Galleani sent a number of mail bombs in April 1919, targeting politicians and public figures, including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and plutocrat J.P. Morgan. The anarchist mail bombings were the latest entry in a decades-long record of violence. Although on Wednesday Ann Coulter described the Haymarket bombings, a late 19th-century act of anarchist terrorism, as having been committed by “liberals,” these American anarchists’ politics were not “liberal.” They believed that all government should be destroyed. This was very different from the Progressive Era ideal, held by those you might call the “liberals” of their day, that government should be perfected and extended to make people’s lives better.

While the anarchist attacks perpetrated on government officials in the early 20th century had a domestic origin, in the middle of the century, new mail bombs came from abroad. In a book published in 1972, Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret Truman Daniel described an incident that happened in 1947, when “a number of cream-colored envelopes” arrived at the White House. The White House mailroom noticed these envelopes and had them defused by the Secret Service. These bombs were built on powdered gelignite, an explosive made with nitroglycerine that is more stable than dynamite. Daniel believed that the Stern Gang, a Zionist extremist group that sent two-dozen letter bombs to British Cabinet members that same year, was responsible.

In a few other 20th-century cases, government intelligence services used letter bombs to lash out at enemies living abroad. Alois Brunner, an unrepentant Nazi, escaped to Syria in the postwar period after a stint working for the CIA. According to observers who spotted him in exile in Syria, Brunner was missing a number of fingers and an eye, apparently due to letter-bomb attacks perpetrated by Israeli intelligence. On the other end of the political spectrum, Ruth Heloise First, a South African anti-apartheid activist and communist, was living in Mozambique and writing Marxist and feminist histories—on topics including labor and Western investment in the apartheid regime—when she was killed by a letter bomb in 1982. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings addressed the murder in 1995 and found that the order to make the bomb came from a former spy in the South African security police.

Back in the United States, Ted Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” famously sent mail bombs 16 times in the 1980s and 1990s, operating out of political beliefs that might best be described as anti-modern or primitivist. Are Kaczynski’s ideas “liberal,” as Coulter claimed? His anti-government, anti-technology stance isn’t so easy to categorize, and the sections of his manifesto that deal with “political correctness” now show up on r/TheRedPill and on Fox News, with approving comments appended.

In another ’90s-era series of political bombings, Franz Fuchs, a xenophobic (and probably mentally ill) Austrian committed 26 attacks—including letter bombings—to protest what he saw as an unbearable incursion of immigrants into the country. He targeted both foreign-born Austrians and those politicians and journalists who supported them. The latter group included the mayor of Vienna, who lost part of his left hand in 1993 when a Fuchs letter bomb went off in his office.

It’s not necessary to look too far back to find a domestic example of a postal bomber operating from the right. A string of package bombings killed two people and injured four in Austin, Texas, in March of this year. The bomber, Mark Anthony Conditt, was white, and the victims who died were from prominent black families. Conditt killed himself before he could be arrested, but reporters were able to dig up some evidence of his conservatism and Christianity. At the very least, it seems fair to say that Mark Anthony Conditt was not a “liberal.”

So there’s the history: Letter, package, and parcel bombs have been sent by people on the left, right, and center; by state actors and those operating far outside the law; by anarchists and secret police and disgruntled ex-employees. What is there to be said about Coulter and Limbaugh’s insistence that bombing is a “liberal” technique used only by “Democrats”? Perhaps the right views violence committed by compatriots as justifiable and correct, and therefore invisible. Perhaps just that it’s foolish to argue history with those who won’t be persuaded.