Altgeld Hall occupies a prominent place on the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It sits at the northwest corner of the main quad, just yards from the Alma Mater statue near the intersection of Green Street (where you’ll find most of the bars college kids hang out in) and Wright Street (which divides the twin cities) in the heart of what’s known locally as Campustown.
That one of the most recognizable buildings on the University of Illinois campus is named after former Gov. John Peter Altgeld seems odd, in retrospect. That Altgeld Hall once housed the university’s law school seems odder still, because Altgeld, who served as Illinois’ 20th governor from 1893 to 1897, left office as one of the most vilified politicians in our state’s checkered history. No, Gov. Alteld wasn’t indicted for corruption. Instead, Altgeld’s sin was this: He pardoned three men, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, and Michael Schwab, who were convicted for their alleged involvement in the May 4, 1886 bombing at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Clarence Darrow, speaking at Altgeld’s funeral in 1902, put it this way:
Elected by the greatest personal triumph of any Governor ever chosen by a State, he fearlessly and knowingly bared his devoted head to the fiercest, most vindictive criticism ever heaped upon a public man, because he loved justice and dared to do the right.
In the days now past, John P. Altgeld, our loving chief, in scorn and derision was called John Pardon Altgeld by those who would destroy his power.
Linguistic flourishes aside, Darrow certainly was correct that Altgeld’s pardon took a tremendous amount of courage. In today’s political climate, no politician would dare do something like that, even though it’s fairly clear that Fielden, Neebe, and Schwab were really convicted for their political beliefs more so than any involvement in the actual bombing.
I mention all this because Chicago’s violent past demonstrates how far we’ve strayed from our core ideals since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the ill-advised “war on terror.”
The city, as Sunday’s Chicago Tribune noted, “is no stranger to bombs.” From Haymarket Square through the early decades of the 20th century, labor and political disputes frequently involved bomb attacks, some fatal, some not. And while most of Chicago’s bomb attacks were limited to internecine struggles between mob forces, political rivals, and the like, in the late 20th century Chicago was no stranger to terrorism, either:
The most sustained terrorist attacks in Chicago were carried out by the Puerto Rican separatist group FALN from 1975 to 1980. …
The terror campaign arrived in Chicago early on the morning of June 14, 1975. Just hours before the Puerto Rican Day Parade was to step off on State Street, bombs exploded outside the Mid-Continental Plaza Building at 55 E. Monroe St. and the United Bank of America at State and Wacker. Four people were injured. In October, bombs exploded outside the IBM Building, Sears Tower and a LaSalle Street bank and unexploded dynamite was found in a bouquet of roses at the Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center). Nobody was injured in those attacks. …
The most serious episode came about 11 p.m. June 7, 1976, when police headquarters at 11th Street and State, the First National Bank at Dearborn and Madison, the John Hancock Center and a bank across from City Hall were targeted. Five people were hurt, two seriously, outside the First National Bank. …
Over the next four years, the FALN (a Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation) carried out 16 more bombings, including at a Holiday Inn, the Merchandise Mart, two armed forces recruiting offices, the County Building and the Great Lakes Naval training base outside North Chicago. Nobody was injured in any of those overnight attacks. …
The terror didn’t end until April 4, 1980, when 11 people — including 27-year-old reputed ringleader Carlos Torres — were arrested near the Northwestern University campus in Evanston. They were about to try to rob an armored truck when Evanston police responding to a nuisance call rolled up. Torres, who had attended high school in Oak Park, was paroled in 2010 after serving 30 years of a 78-year sentence.
By my count, that’s 19 bomb attacks over a five year period in one American city. Mercifully, no one was killed here; but, according to the Tribune, the FALN did kill four people and injured 50 in a bomb attack in Manhattan in 1974. So, all in all, that’s some pretty serious terrorism.
Yet, Torres and his compatriots were arrested, tried in civilian courts, and sentenced to federal prison. No one uttered the words “enemy combatants,” even though they were part of a separatist movement that attacked Americans on American soil. No one demanded that Torres’ and his co-conspirators’ constitutional rights be jettisoned in the name of national security. No one argued that our criminal justice system was incapable of prosecuting them for their crimes.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that none of those thoughts even occurred to anyone during the FALN’s terrorist campaign.
Today, of course, everything’s different. Yes, yes. September 11 and all that. But I’ve read the Constitution over and over and I have yet to come across some sort of terrorist exception to any of its provision. Or, a really-scary-Muslim exception. Or, a people-who-were-born-elsewhere-but-lived-most-of-their-young-lives-here exception. If you catch my meaning.
Whether or not the attacks of September 11 justified an open-ended, borderless military response that’s gone on for nearly a dozen years, well, that’s open to debate; but there’s no way – no way – what happened that godawful day magically transformed every subsequent act of violence into an act of war so long as it was committed by a Muslim. Or so long as it was committed by someone who was born elsewhere, even if that someone spent most of his young life in these United States.
Good lord, people. How is it possible that we even have to say these things aloud?
Really. This is how far we’ve fallen. In 1893, Gov. Altgeld caused controversy by pardoning men who’d been convicted for their alleged (albeit tenuous) involvement in a bombing plot. Today it’s controversial for the President of the United States even to suggest that a homegrown bomber like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a naturalized American citizen who’s lived more than half his life here, should be charged with federal crimes and processed through the civilian criminal justice system.
What the hell happened to us?
[Image: Engraving of Haymarket bombing from Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1886, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum]