The Worst Acts of Political Violence in American History
Americans hate to admit it, but the United States has a long history of political violence. Indeed, America was born in political violence during the Revolutionary War.
However, many Americans are ignorant of their nation’s long history of violence. For example, John Berman of CNN’s AC 360 labels the 6 January Capitol Riot “the worst act of political violence since the Civil War.”
To demonstrate this thesis, we will list some of the worst political violence in American history. Note: we will exclude foreign terrorist attacks, acts of sabotage by foreign agents, enemy attacks, and military conflicts such as the Civil War, the World Wars, the Philippine War, and the Indian Wars.
The Worst Political Violence in American History includes:
The Oklahoma City Bombing
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labels the 19 April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City “the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism in US history.”
The bombing killed 168 people, including 19 children. Additionally, the bombing injured hundreds of people. The blast was powerful enough to damage or destroy over 300 buildings in Downtown Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma City bombing was a simple act. Bomber Timothy McVeigh set off the explosion by lighting a fuse. The fuse ignited a bomb made of fertilizer, diesel fuel, and chemicals. Yet it was powerful enough to kill and injure hundreds of people, destroy a multistory building, and damage over 300 structures.
Notably, investigators think McVeigh had only two collaborators, his Army buddies Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. Nichols is still in prison at the federal Supermax in Florence, Colorado. Fortier received a reduced sentence for testifying against McVeigh and Nichols. They released Fortier from prison in 2006 and is now a free man.
McVeigh was no criminal mastermind. The FBI easily identified McVeigh with a vehicle identification number (VIN) from the Ryder rental truck that carried the bomb. The truck came from a body shop in Junction City, Kansas.
Had McVeigh stolen a vehicle, he could have gotten away. Instead, the FBI found the bomber in jail. An Oklahoma State Trooper arrested McVeigh for driving a car without a license plate. Thus, McVeigh could have made a clean getaway if he had checked his license plate.
The Oklahoma City Bombing was political because McVeigh was a white supremacist who hoped to trigger a race war in America. In addition, McVeigh claimed he was avenging the deaths of 75 members of the Branch Davidian cult in the 19 April 1993 Waco Siege.
Note: McVeigh gave another story he claimed the 19 April date was to commemorate the Battles of Lexington and Concord that launched the American Revolution. Many scholars think The Turner Diaries , a racist novel about a race war inspired McVeigh, The New York Times notes. The Turner Diaries includes a terrorist attack on the US Capitol which sparks a Second American Revolution. The New York Times speculates The Turner Diaries also inspired the 6 January Riot at the US Capitol.
Bizarrely, the Branch Dravidians were not racists and had no political agenda. Instead, the multiracial cult was a radical offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. McVeigh blamed US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and other federal agents from Oklahoma City for the Waco violence.
McVeigh, an Army veteran, was one of the few political extremists executed in American history. A jury convicted McVeigh in June 1997 and sentenced him to death. On 11 June 2001, McVeigh became the first federal prisoner executed since 1963.
The Los Angeles Times Bombing
The Los Angeles Times bombing was the worst act of violence against the media in American history.
On 1 October 1910, a bomb destroyed The Timesbuilding in Downtown LA killing six people. The bombing was political because the bombers disagreed with the newspaper’s editorial policies. Specifically, its criticism of unions.
Since the FBI was in its infancy in 1910, Times owner Harrison Otis hired private detective William J. Burns to investigate. Burns believed that members of the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union were behind the bombing.
Burns apprehended two professional bombers, the McNamara brothers, in Indiana. Burns alleged that Bridge and Structural Iron Workers Union Treasurer Ortie McManigal hired the McNamara brothers to blow up The Times building.
Unions and leftists raised $50,000 ($1.444 million in 2021 dollars) to hire America’s most famous attorney, Clarence Darrow, to defend the suspects. The fee was exorbitant because Darrow feared the controversial case.
Darrow’s investigation of the bombing proved his own suspicions. All the evidence Darrow uncovered pointed to the McNamara brothers.
Wisely, Darrow avoided a media circus by arranging a plea bargain. The McNamara brothers pled guilty to avoid the death penalty.
Bizarrely, Darrow found himself on trial. Prosecutors accused the defense attorney of trying to bribe jurors. Worse, the McNamara’s supporters refused to pay Darrow’s fee.
Prosecutors tried Darrow on bribery charges twice. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and the jury in the second trial acquitted Darrow. Thus, Darrow’s greed overcame his instincts and got him into trouble. Notably, Darrow never defended terrorism suspects again in his long and colorful career.
Although forgotten today, The Los Angeles Times bombing shows how political violence can lead to legal messes. Strangely, the motive for The Times bombing seems lost to history.
The Harper’s Ferry Raid and Siege
The Harper’s Ferry siege was the most destructive act of political violence in American history. To explain, the raid helped trigger the Civil War by inspiring Southern States to leave the Union.
Harper’s Ferry was political because its architect, John Brown, wanted to ignite a revolution or a race war, just like Timothy McVeigh. The difference was that Brown wanted a revolution against slavery and a race war against white slave owners. McVeigh wanted a conflict that could cleanse America of nonwhite people. Brown wanted to cleanse America of slavery by killing the slaveholders.
Despite its impact, the casualties from the actual raid were slight. Brown’s raiders killed one man when they seized the federal arsenal and musket factory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Ironically, the raiders killed Hayward Shepherd, a free black man and a railroad employee during the initial attack.
Brown claimed his plan was to seize the guns and ammunition in the Federal Arsenal. The raiders would use the weapons to arm a force of African American slaves that would serve as the vanguard of a Second American Revolution. Brown even wrote a new constitution for the United States and named himself “president.”
It is probable that Brown knew his plan would fail. When Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry on 16 October 1859, he did not have enough men to achieve his goals.
He had between 19 and 21 men in his raiding party and did not try to carry off weapons. Instead, the raiders barricaded themselves in the arsenal and waited for a counterattack.
Like McVeigh, Brown wanted an act of symbolic violence that could inspire more bloodshed. If that was Brown’s goal, he definitely succeeded.
The Civil War broke out less than two years after the violence at Harper’s Ferry. Brown did not live to see it. US Marines, ironically commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee, arrested Brown and his men on 18 October 1859.
During the Civil War, John Brown’s Body became one of the most popular marching songs for Union troops. The implication being that Union soldiers were avenging Brown and implementing his political agenda. John Brown’s Body survives today as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. A patriotic standard that was a favorite of Elvis.
Brown did not live to see the bloodbath he unleashed. A jury convicted the abolitionist of treason and murder on 2 November 1859 . Virginia authorities hanged Brown on 2 December 1859. The witnesses to Brown’s hanging reportedly included actor John Wilkes Booth, the future assassin of President Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois).
Thus, political violence is a grand old American tradition. Instead of an aberration, the horrifying events of 6 January 2021 are well within the American tradition.