Culture and Car Bombs

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis is about culture albeit  in a very macabre fashion. It is about how the car bomb (actually a horse-drawn cart), “invented” by a Mario Buda who bombed Wall Street in September 1920 is became a tool of create urban terror. Buda’s wagon killed 38-40, and injured 200 passers-by.  The response by the US government of course was quick and harsh–and Buda was never caught.  But more importantly for this book’s thesis, Buda created an innovation that both law enforcement and terrorists continue to evaluate today.

As for the car bomb itself, the result was the cultural diffusion of this cruel weapon just in the same fashion as other technical innovations.  As with other new ideas, the car bomb changed and responded to a range of technical, political, and cultural condtions.  The nature of this change is waiting for analysis in anthropology classes where the inevitable term paper assignment is “pick a technology, and explain how it diffused in response to a mix of technical, cultural, and social needs.” There have been enough papers of this sort written about the QWERTY keyboard, stone axes, and cargo cults.  Mike Davis is offering 21st century students a chance to use the car bomb in their responses to this inevitable prompt!

Davis’ story is a fascinating one of an unusual innovation. After Buda’s first attack in 1920, it took over 20 years for the car bomb to be used effectively again, this time in the late 1940s by the Israeli Stern gang in Palestine who used it against the British and Palestinians.  Palestinians in Jerusalem responded with more car bombs, apparently with the assistance of British deserters. And thus the “poor man’s missile” became a weapon of war.

Other innovators included the Viet Cong who made the first attack on an embassy in Saigon in 1965, radicals in Wisconsin who invented the ammonium nitrate fuel bomb in 1970 and bombed a university physics lab, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the 1980s who combined suicide car-bombing with a regular military tactics, and the bombing of two US embassies on the same day in 1998.  There was even a CIA funded “car bomb university” in Pakistan from 1982 to 1992 which trained 35,000 potential car bombers from across the Muslim world in the use of explosives as a terror weapon.  Today of course, the car bomb is skillfully and cruelly used as a tool of war and terror by insurgent groups in Iraq. As Davis points out, despite high rates of injuring and killing bystanders, the urban car bomb is inevitably the weapon of the poor against the establishment.

Anthropology students looking for an unusual approach to culture and the transfer of ideas should pick up Buda’s Wagon. Davis is not an anthropologist, so there is no theoretical material to clutter up the book–the stories he tells, and statistics he writes about are pure data for the more theoretically inclined.  Which of course means that the student can provide the analysis which, ultimately is what the professor wants to see. The answer that Buda’s Wagon provides is that culture is something that responds to both the ecological context provided by the wider world, as well as human ideas about needs for order, justice, and inequality.