In 1942, a madman sent a note to the Manhattan police. In the cut-and-paste letters of bad kidnapping comedies across the world, it read: "I will make no more bomb units for the duration of the war — my patriotic feelings made me decide this — later I will bring the Con Edison to justice". He’d delivered a dud pipe bomb to Con Ed in 1940, left an bomb with an unwound alarm clock as a defanged trigger a few blocks from Con Ed’s offices in 1941. No one payed much attention, and George Metesky, the Mad Bomber of New York, was as good as his word; he didn’t plant another bomb until 1950. Then he began planting bombs that detonated, targeting Con Ed for their dastardly deeds, and other targets for no apparent reason at all: the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station, movie theaters throughout the city. Dr. James Brussel, the state’s director of mental hygiene, eventually helped crack the case with what may have been America’s first psychological profile of an unknown criminal. Among his conclusions about the Mad Bomber’s grievances, background, and education, he noted that F.P., as the Bomber signed himself, was probably a Slav. He was right. Everyone knew that Eastern Europeans used bombs as their weapon of choice. Alfred Nobel‘s most dangerous invention (George Bernard Shaw’s misgivings notwithstanding) was designed for safety. Simply jostling untreated nitroglycerine, particularly that made in the imperfect manufacturing environment of the nineteenth century, could trigger deadly explosions. Dozens died that way, including Nobel’s brother, before Nobel discovered that the abrasive insulator kieselguhr could be render the explosive safe to handle. Nobel surely didn’t think his invention was so destructive that it would bring an end to war, but he was aware of its dangers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scion of a munitions empire who invented the world’s first great man-portable explosive had pacifist leanings. The Peace Prize he endowed was, in part, his effort to make things right, and it didn’t work.
The two great novels of the flotsam and jetsam of London radicalism before World War I, Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, were published within a year of one another, but they could not be more different. Conrad’s is a precursor to the modern political thriller, while Chesterton’s bears about as much political relevance as The Wizard of Oz; his mad genius, Sunday, stands in not so much for political radicalism but Nature’s God. But both understand the weight of those "dubious and dreadful shapes, things that looked like the bulbs of iron plants, or the eggs of iron birds." The dynamite romances of the nineteenth century sprung from the illegalist movement; bomb-throwing anarchists, the Verlaks and Symes, were not the invention of novelists.
But anarchism as a threat to the Western order was crushed under the wheels of history, with assists from Lenin and Franco. Alexander Berkman’s The Blast published its last issue in 1917. The bombs remained, though, as the preferred tool of senseless lunatics (inspiring an entire subgenre of mad bomber films); militiamen; bored or simply homicidal high-school students; and murderous guerilla movements worldwide.
The most recent contribution to the dark art of bombing has been the suicide bomber (or "homicide bomber" if you work for the Newspeak division of Fox). The technique was not invented by the Tamil Tigers, but it was honed to perfection by them and then exported to Islamist and nationalist groups throughout the Middle East. Suicide bombing has not found great purchase in North America, fearmongering to the contrary, but it seems almost inevitable. Metesky’s bombs shoved into movie theater upholstery required a knowledge of detenator design; suicide bombings simply require an explosives vest and a desire for martyrdom. When the technique appeared in print in 1973, it was used by ridiculously-costumed supervillains with plungers on their heads. It was laughable, beyond belief. No one on the Avengers editorial staff seemed to realize that they really had dreamed up a man-portable weapon for defeating superpowers. Steve Englehart’s Living Bombs were the perfect representation of a tool used by those the twentieth century had driven mad.