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Whatever Happened to Left-Wing Domestic Terrorism?

Since 1981, right-wing extremists are the only ones who have run up a body count.

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No matter their tactics, the leftist terrorists of the 1970s did not inspire much of anything (besides a whole lot of novelists and screenwriters). “There was no social base for it, no support for it on campuses or black communities,” says Maurice Isserman, professor of history at Hamilton College and co-author of  America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. “The appeal of terrorism is that it substitutes the individual or the small band of desperados for a mass social movement. It’s hard to organize mass social movements, but it’s relatively easy in this country to acquire guns and dynamite."  

This last point is something the lunatic fringe of the American right has been at pains to prove recently. While left-wing terrorism in the United States is relegated to property damage and Al Qaeda-inspired militants have been largely foiled in the last decade, right-wing terrorism continues to wreck havoc. From 1995 to 2011, according to the Center for American Progress, 56 percent of domestic terrorist attacks can be attributed to right-wing extremists, 30 percent to violent environmentalists and 12 percent to Islamic radicals. The most deadly terrorist attack on U.S. soil before 9/11 was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, who was steeped in hard-right-wing ideology.

As Daryl Johnson testified before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, right-wing extremist have killed 16 police officers and 20 other Americans between 2006 and 2012. (That’s a higher toll than the collective murders of all the American leftist terrorists of the 1970s combined.) Many women’s health clinics, African-American churches and mosques have been attacked in the same period. Just last week a man believed to be a member of a white supremacist gang  murdered the chief of the Colorado Department of Corrections in his home.

But aside from the movie American History X, right-wing terrorists don’t have the same hold on the popular imagination (maybe corrupted idealism is more interesting than pure hate). As Benjamin Kunkel  wrote in a 2005 essay, “The terrorist novel has dealt mostly with…the gun-happy dregs of the domestic New Left, who for all their snarling communiques killed only a handful of people, and that 20 and 30 years ago.” (See: Philip Roth’s  American Pastoral.)

“[Leftist terrorists] play into the American fixation with outlaws,” says Max Elbaum, author of  Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che. “There is an archetype of the small band of outlaws who take on authority...They are part of the American tradition."

Jake Blumgart is a freelance reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.

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