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Originally published Friday, September 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"American Lightning": The century-old seeds of domestic terrorism

"American Lightning" is Harold Blum's riveting account of one of the first acts of 20th-century terrorism — the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building.

Special to The Seattle Times

"American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, Movie-Making and

the Crime of the Century"

by Howard Blum

Crown, 340 pp., $24.95

In October 1910, the Los Angeles Times building was blown up. More than 20 Times employees were killed, some of them forced to choose between burning to death or jumping. The chief suspect was organized labor.

Eventually revealed to be part of an orchestrated assault that threatened several American cities, this precursor to 9/11 is regarded by investigative journalist Howard Blum ("The Gold of Exodus") as a turning point in the history of labor unions and capitalism. (Today's L.A. Times is threatened more immediately by staff cuts and dwindling cash flow.)

"Nowhere in the country did the opposing armies of unions and employers collide with greater frequency than in Los Angeles," Blum writes. Branding the conflict "a near second civil war," he claims it was one of the inspirations for D.W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War epic, "The Birth of a Nation."

"American Lightning," Blum's compelling account of the attacks and their aftermath, borrows part of its title from President Woodrow Wilson's reaction to Griffith's film: "It's like writing history with lightning."

The author explores the investigative techniques of Billy Burns, "the American Sherlock Holmes" who tracked down the killers; the tortured logic of Clarence Darrow, who found himself defending them in court; and the union-busting aggressiveness of Harrison Gray Otis, who bought the Times and insisted on brutal pay cuts for the staff.

The first half of the book is a tense detective story, including an atmospheric detour through Tacoma and Seattle, where a trade school was found to have trained one of the L.A. bombers in the technique of dynamite blasting. Essential to cracking the case was Burns' ability to sniff out conspiracies and false identities.

Darrow, long before he became famous for defending evolution at the Scopes "monkey trial" and making the case against capital punishment in the Leopold-Loeb case, was dragged into the trial when he was 54. He was exhausted and wanted to retire, but couldn't abide being called a traitor to the cause of trade unionism. His turns out to be the most eloquent voice in the book.

Citing the obstinate Otis' "warrior's temperament," Blum finds the Times' owner typical of a class of powerful men who were "certain that material success was tangible proof of moral superiority." In a showdown with the unions, his refusal to compromise would eventually lead to frustration and violence.

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Blum has much to say about director Griffith's instinctively cinematic ability to influence the public. He sees sympathies with the working man in several of Griffith's early pictures, especially "A Corner in Wheat," a 1909 melodrama about turn-of-the-century manipulation of the wheat market. Less relevant are Blum's lengthy asides about Griffith's relationships with Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and his estranged wife, Linda. It's not that this material is uninteresting, but perhaps it deserves a book of its own.

In the final chapters, however, Blum sees the aftermath of the trial as proof that "the national equilibrium had been restored." Politics became more civil, terror was no longer useful, and "the class war had eased." Given all that comes before it, this is not the most persuasive of conclusions.

Indeed, Blum makes terrorism seem inevitable, arguing that its fundamental causes are rooted in exploitation of the poor and disenfranchised. He leaves it to Darrow to sum it up: "We are a people responsible for these conditions, and we must look results squarely in the face."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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