Acts of War: Why the Greatest Perpetrator of Mass Violence is the State Itself
By Scott Nappalos /

As a nurse, a human being, and an anarchist, I was horrified to see the trauma enacted on people in Boston.[1]  I was further saddened because I know that in our sick society tragedy breeds tragedy. Sadly, and predictably, the tragic Boston bombing has provided an opportunity for unprincipled people to go after opponents, to construct new political and cultural boogeymen, and for tabloid journalists to advance their careers. To be blunt, I am disgusted by Steven Kurlander’s recent piece written for the Huffington Post A Lesson of the Boston Bombings: Stop Classifying Criminal Anarchist Violence as Acts of War.[2] In times of turmoil there is a dangerous tendency for acts of violence to be used as tools to attack civil liberties, human rights, and the further conquest of power and wealth by elites. Kurlander’s article contributes to this environment by using the tragic Boston event to justify dominant power and possibly crackdowns against political dissidents.

Kurlander argues that the bombings should be considered anarchist acts of political violence. He claims this instead of viewing the bombings as a part of a cohesive war, the War on Terror. The War on Terror tries to place often independent acts of terrorism as part of a coherent military campaign similar to what a State or military would engage in. The logic of this is limitless and places nearly the whole globe as the battlefield, something Kurlander rightly rejects.

The so-called anarchist violence that Kurlander claims to see, involves a likewise motley crew. Kurlander weaves together the Oklahoma City bombing by right wing extremists close to neo-nazis and radical Christian fundamentalists, the Boston Bombing suspects who allegedly are tied to separatist religious movements, and insurrectionary violence at the turn of the twentieth century. This approach is almost as bad as the War on Terror, the beast Kurlander claims he is trying to slay, by mixing together violence in a way that lets the worst criminals off the hook.

Unfortunately in the United States people associate anarchism with images of violence and chaos, an association largely cultivated by governments world wide as part of broader propaganda efforts to delegitimize political dissidents. Kurlander takes it an extra step by trying to tie the actual Anarchist movement to violence associated with the radical right and alleged religious fundamentalists. This is false and simply shoddy journalism. Moreover it is unprincipled and dangerous: if a crackdown on anarchists comes it will almost certainly speak in terms like Kurlander’s.

To me clearly some self-described anarchists in the United States around the turn of the 20th century did carry out attacks on political targets: the politicians, Robber Barons, and power brokers of their time. This was in an era in which everyday Americans were regularly being beaten, tortured, and murdered simply for trying to organize unions and assert their rights against a racist, sexist, and oppressive class system. The murder of innocent people because of their race or class was commonplace, and the ruling class killed with impunity. These Anarchists managed on a few occasions to assassinate officials in response to the violence of their time. While these acts may be critiqued, even in the context of the pervasive brutality of American capitalism of the time, it should be noted that anarchists were not those most associated with this violence. Nationalist and religious fundamentalist movements throughout time have been the most active users of political assassinations not in their attempts to destroy governments, but in their efforts to create new ones. Today this tradition among governments and nationalists continues, including our own. Anarchists in general, however, moved on from trying to inspire or exact revenge through assassinations to trying to base an alternative in social justice organizing in workplaces and communities. In fact, anarchists largely rejected these tactics over 100 years ago, and the anarchist terrorists were only ever a small minority. The majority of the anarchists in the 19th and early 20th centuries were a branch of the broader socialist movement and never believed such violent acts would bring about liberation for humanity.

Critical as I am of the attacks by anarchists over 100 years ago, those acts were categorically different from the bombing in Boston, or in Oklahoma City. Those more recent acts of violence were carried out against random individuals. Anarchist bombers, though I differ with their tactics, were still better than these recent repulsive acts. The anarchist bombers of 100 years ago never engaged in attacks on the general civilian population and it would make no sense to do so from an anarchist perspective.

Anarchism – true anarchism, unlike than the so-called anarchism of Kurlander’s shoddy journalism and political fantasies – is motivated by the desire for humanity to live fulfilling lives unbridled by the inequity and oppression of economic and political elites. Anarchists seek to build a new stateless society of mutual aid, socialism, and liberty on a voluntary basis without coercion. As the anarchist Ericco Malatesta said “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to liberate themselves”, which would be hard to do if you’re busy murdering them. Kurlander fails to notice this key difference in his in misidentification of the motivation for acts of terror against whole populations. The motivation for these bombings does not lie in acts of collective liberation, but instead in the competition and violence within the State and between States which seek to dominate people. That is: the bombings are more of the same, part of the political outlook and the sick society that anarchists reject. They are nothing anarchists embrace or support.

In actuality, these acts of mass violence against random people have been done usually by governments, by nationalist movements, or fundamentalisms seeking to become new governments. Since the creation of the modern state and capitalism, genocide and mass violence has accelerated dramatically, largely by States themselves, but also by those attempting to create new States or conquer existing ones. When we think of mass violence against populations we shouldn’t only think of Boston, but also of Gaza, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, Franco’s Spain, Nazi Germany, the South in Jim Crow era, among other examples. States and people who aspire to control the state commit these sorts of acts, not anarchists.

We live in a society founded on political violence used against the lower classes of society in order to maintain the privileges of a tiny elite. This abuse is meted out daily in society’s institutions and through the policing of and crimes against communities. It should not surprise us that a racist, sexist, and class-based society will produce mental illness that seeks out revenge with society as its stage. Nor should we be shocked that the conquest of power, for which our government is not afraid to use mass terror on foreign lands, creates its own monsters willing to use the same means that States use against their own people. Yet none of this has anything to do with anarchism. Or rather, none of this is the result of anarchism. Anarchism is the movement to end this madness, not to sustain it. With his inaccurate and careerist tabloid article blaming anarchists for the violence in Boston, Kurlander adds his voice in support of the immoral social order that generates this kind of violence.

In times of trauma we see the best and the worst of human possibility. After the Boston bombing we saw scenes of deep humanity and real heroism as in the examples of everyday people running into the debris to rescue complete strangers. We also saw ugly and bigoted behavior like the racist and prejudiced allegations that emerged within seconds of the bombing . And we saw cowardly opportunism like those writing articles as Kurlander did.

As we collect ourselves in the aftermath of this tragedy, we should draw from the best responses to the tragedy, and reject the worst. We must seek to sort out why these atrocities happen, rather than reactively retreating into flag waving and hating the first ‘enemies’ we find nearby. Rather than affirming war, drones, bombings, and other forms of terror against populations, we step back and ask what we can do as a society to prevent such things from happening again. The best response to the suffering of the injured is not to bomb or abuse others in their name. It is to stand against all forms of terror and victimization. My commitment to these values is the reason I am a nurse. My belief that these values can become the organizing principles for a genuinely good society is what makes me an anarchist. I hope that others will join in the struggle to heal society, and work to create a better world based upon solidarity, equality, and liberation. We can only get there by recognizing State violence and the necessity of its dismantling. Anarchism is not the problem that caused the Boston bombings. It is the solution which will end such atrocities.


[1] I wrote a piece expressing my grief and my sense of solidarity with the victims, Fall Down Seven Times, Get up Eight: An anarchist nurse’s reflections on violence against the people. In that piece I rejected such reprehensible acts of violence as the Boston bombing. I am not alone in this rejection or mourning, as anarchists worldwide have expressed their solidarity with those affected. As Hurricane Katrina and Sandy showed, sadly, anarchists are often amongst the first to respond with disaster relief to such events where the State is incompetent or  ambivalent to the suffering of our nation.

[2] Adam Jung, writing for Huffington Post UK replies in a blog post to Kurlander dismantling his argument and its historical inaccuracies. I recommend it highly.


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Acts of War: Why the Greatest Perpetrator of Mass Violence is the State Itself