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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.

Sixties radicals may grow old, but they never seem to go out of style. In a trailer for Robert Redford’s recently released film, The Company You Keep, we are informed: “In 1969, a group of radical anti-war protesors began a campaign of bombings on American soil.” Redford plays a former terrorist, still in hiding “30 years after the notorious bank robbery that claimed the life of a guard.”

Never mind that the actual Weathermen didn’t go in much for bank robberies and avoided killing anyone during their bombing campaign. Several ex-Weathermen were involved in the horrifically bungled Brink’s armored car robbery at Rockland County, NY’s Nanuet Mall. Carried out by the remnants of the Black Liberation Army (a hyper-violent fragment of the Black Panther Party) and a few ex-members of the Weather Underground, the crime left two police officers and a security guard dead. The attempted robbery, which ended in the arrest or death of all involved, took place on Oct. 20, 1981.There have been no deaths linked to American left-wing extremism since.

But the specter of left-wing terrorism continues to hold a powerful sway over the American imagination. A policeman in George V. Higgin’s novel  Outlaws describes a cadre of lefty terrorists as “Longhairs that got bored with protesting the war and branched out,” a description that sums up the general feeling about everyone from the Weather Underground to the Symbionese Liberation Army. The closest modern-day equivalent is the Earth Liberation Front, whose periodic fire bombings target property and have caused no deaths. (ELF is getting a hip cinematic touchup in the form of the new indie thriller The East: “We will counterattack three corporations for their worldwide terrorism in the next six months,” Ellen Page murmurs, as a swirling montage of images implies that her radical environmentalist clique’s tactics will quickly, violently and stylishly spin out of control.)

But today there is no equivalent threat from left-wing extremists. Small bands of masked protestors periodically indulge in a bout of window smashing or throw rocks at the police, but bombings, bank robberies and gunfights with law enforcement are the province of fringe right-wing extremist groups. “Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, there are few, true left-wing extremist organizations operating in the United States,” Daryl Johnson notes in  Right-Wing Resurgence: How A Domestic Terrorism Threat Is Being Ignored. Johnson is an expert on domestic non-Islamic extremism and a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, although his unit was  dismantled in the wake of conservative outrage over its  report on right-wing extremism in the United States. In January 2009, Johnson’s team warned of increased cyber attacks, which “are attractive options to leftwing extremists who view attacks on economic targets as aligning with their nonviolent, ‘no-harm’ doctrine.”  

“I stand by the statement that the left-wing terrorist groups were active in the 1970s and early '80s and we’ve seen a shift to more right-wing extremism,” Johnson says. “We do have left-wing extremists who are active and they do property destruction and commit acts of arson; there have been occasional incidents where a police officer will get injured…but the vast majority of these things are property destruction. They just don’t have the body count.”

The crimes listed in the DHS report include disrupted email accounts at laboratories (usually in relation to animal rights), which allegedly cost the targeted companies millions of dollars. Contrast that with the Aug. 24, 1970 bombing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Sterling Hall, which contained the Army Mathematics Research Center, which was barely affected by the attack. But the physics department in the building’s lower levels was badly hit, wounding several students and a security guard and killing researcher  Robert Fassnacht.

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