Anniversary Post: Émile Henry’s Bourgeois Attack

Émile Henry's AttackOn this day in 1894, the anarchist Émile Henry threw a bomb into the Café Terminus, killing one and injuring 20 more. At his trial, he was asked why he killed so many innocent people. He apparently replied, “There are no innocent bourgeois.” I think that’s a fascinating answer.

I don’t believe in violence. It is one of those things that almost always seems like a good idea before, and a bad idea after. It really doesn’t matter what it is. People always grab onto World War II. But the reasons we have for justifying it were not the reasons we got into it. But I’ll grant that there are times when violence does some good. But it is so rare that it isn’t much worth thinking about.

But Émile Henry’s retort speaks to me. I don’t say that as an outsider but very much as an insider. Mostly, I don’t see myself as directly complicit in the evils of the world. But there is no doubt that the quality of my life is improved by the system of oppression. It isn’t something I wallow in, because it’s bad enough to benefit from it, but it’s worse for the world to be polluted by my polite guilt.

If I had real strength in my beliefs, I could go off to some remote place and become a subsistence farmer. But I freak out when a spider crawls on my desk. I’m not the kind of man who is capable of making bold gestures. Of course, we could say the same thing of Émile Henry. He was born into an upper class (albeit a radical) household. It’s a curious way to deal with your own privilege: by killing others in your class. It strikes me as a selfish act. If he were alive today, Émile Henry would probably be a libertarian and claim to be freeing the poor by cutting the taxes on the rich.

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