This month marks the ten-year anniversary of 9-11. There is nothing to be said here that has not already been said in countless books, articles, documentaries, films, reports, and other forms of coverage chronicling the event and its aftermath. What is clear is how the concept of terrorism has been redefined both here and abroad. The list of such instances is not a short one: Columbine, Fort Hood, unprovoked shootings at schools, universities, post offices and other institutions, bombings and arson – the list goes on and on. More recently, the Tucson shooting in January 2011, which killed six and injured thirteen, including representative Gabrielle Giffords, makes it clear how dangerous the actions of a small number of men (or even one) can be. Even as I penned the first draft of this blog, there was a report across the newswires of a mass shooting at an IHop in Nevada. Terrorism, it seems, has become a way of life, whether we desire it or not.
It is worth noting that terrorism is not exclusive to present day. A good example of this can be found in the book, American Lightning by Howard Blum, which chronicles the bombing of the Los Angeles Times newspaper building in October 1910, along with the investigation and subsequent trial. And for those who are wondering what a column about terrorism is doing in a blog usually reserved for movie theaters and film preservation, yes, there is a movie connection–but more of that later.
The America of the early 1900s was one caught in a vicious industrial war between capital and labor, with Los Angeles being called its “bloodiest arena in the Western World.” Harrison Gray Otis, a staunch capitalist and owner of the Los Angeles Times, who had been an unswerving opponent of organized labor for the previous two decades, fueled much of the fire. His newspaper was only one weapon in his arsenal to drive the unions out of the city. It came as no surprise that when the Times building was bombed – a massive explosion that leveled the building and killed 21 people – it was immediately assumed that labor supporters were responsible.
American Lightning follows the lives of three men during this set of events, the first being William J. Burns, a detective who had been acclaimed as the “American Sherlock Holmes.” Burns was appointed to solve this crime of the century. His investigation led him across the United States, while connecting the Los Angeles explosion to other similar bombings in other cities. In the end, two men – J.J. McNamara and his brother, Jim McNamara –were arrested and set for trial, thus bringing the labor wars to the legal system. Brought in to represent the McNamaras was the second of the three men central to American Lightning, lawyer Clarence Darrow, best known for his involvement in the Scopes monkey and Leopold and Loeb trials of the twenties. After much legal wrangling, the defendants eventually pleaded guilty in exchange for lesser sentences (Jim received a life sentence, thereby avoiding a likely execution).
The third person in this account was the pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith, during his latter days with Biography, and just prior to his work on Birth of a Nation. Griffith had already worked with Billy Burns, having made an early film with the express intention to snare a suspected child murderer who regularly went to the movies (the strategy worked; the suspect was so unnerved by seeing his crime reenacted on the screen that he confessed soon after his arrest). While all three men were of radically different backgrounds and experience, they all shook the world in their own manner, and it was a matter of pure coincidence that they would all come together for one brief moment in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel. The meeting lasted only a minute, greetings were exchange along with light banter – and then it was over; each departed to their separate destinies. Darrow still had his landmark trials before him; Burns took on new cases that interested him. For Griffith, he still had his masterstroke, Intolerance (1916), along with Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921), both made with his muse, Lillian Gish. In what is considered to be a cruel stroke of irony so appropriate to what Hollywood would become, he would earn the moniker of “the Father of Film,” while becoming virtually forgotten by the industry he helped to create. He died in 1948.
One of his films, Hearts of the World (1918), was filmed on location in Britain and in part near the front lines during WWI, and like his other works, brought the human aspect to the subject of war. Like the bombing of the Times building, warfare of the time was radically different from the conflicts to be found in the following century. Only the numbers of the fallen can be seen as a constant.
American Lightning is a fascinating book that covers a dramatic moment in American history, as related to three unique individuals, and leading to a singular passing moment in a hotel lobby. Most notable is that for all the changes that have taken place in the last century, there are just as many similarities that tie our present to the past. What is equally clear is that our inherent desire to destroy is just as potent now as our need to create.