Whatever Happened to Left-Wing Domestic Terrorism?

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.

The ultra-left-wing terrorist groups of the 1970s generally carried out such attacks in protest of bloody U.S. interventions abroad or the entrenched racism of American society. Clearly, their tactics did nothing to hinder either phenomenon, as the invasion of Iraq and the racial segregation that is still readily apparent in our prison complex, inner cities and educational system illustrate. Considering these continuing evils and the dire threats of climate change and soaring inequality, there are arguably even more issues to be enraged about than there were in the early 1970s. But no American left-wing radical group has resorted to the kind of murderous plot found in the works of Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, popular authors who cast environmentalist and anarchist groups as brutal villains.

So what has changed since the Brink’s armored car robbery in 1981? “The brief moment of left violence in the late 1960s and ‘70s was a product of leftists hooking up with anti-colonial international movements,” says Andrew Hartman, an associate professor at Illinois State University. “[American terrorists] thought of themselves as fighting against the colonial power from the belly of the beast in solidarity with these ‘Third World’ movements. It was rooted in the expectation that a revolution was right around the corner and that almost any means necessary was appropriate in trying to achieve that. Obviously this was delusional, but it was a very palpable expectation.”

American leftists’ eager identification with their counterparts in Latin America, Africa and Asia is readily apparent. “The vanguard role of the Vietnamese and other Third World countries in defeating US imperialism has been clear to our movement for some time,” reads the 1969 manifesto of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (many of whose members would join the Weather Underground). “[The movement] will become one division of the International Liberation Army, while its battlefields are added to the many Vietnams which will dismember and dispose of US imperialism.” (Even the bizarre rhetoric of the SLA reflects this: every group member took a “revolutionary" name. Patty Hearst’s choice was Tania, after a comrade of Che Guevera.) "There were thousands of acts of violent protest happening all around,” explained ex-Weatherperson Kathy Boudin in a 2001 New Yorker interview at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where she served a 19-year sentence for her role in the 1981 Brink’s robbery. “Every day you would hear about acts of violence, so it didn't feel unusual in a certain way."  

The more exact analogy was probably the violent radical groups in Western Europe which, while just as ineffectual, were far deadlier than their American counterparts. From 1970 to 1981, the Italian Red Brigades killed “three politicians, nine magistrates, 65 policemen, and some 300 others,” according to Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. A former prime minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped on the day of his greatest political victory and held hostage at a “People’s Prison” in Rome. His body was found seven weeks later in the trunk of a car parked in the city center. The Red Army Faction robbed 30 banks, took 162 hostages and killed 28 people including the West German attorney general.

Contrast that with the Weathermen, who only killed each other. On March 6, 1970 a cache of bombs ripped apart a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing three Weathermen before they could deploy the bombs at a dance for officers at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Bill Ayers (who was not present) says in the 2001 profile of Boudin, who survived the blast, “The townhouse knocked us back and forced us to reassess ourselves, pulling us back from that particular abyss.” Before the group broke up in 1976, they carried out over two dozen bombings across the nation, including attacks on the U.S. Capitol building and the Pentagon, but issued warnings beforehand and avoided killing anyone.

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."


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