Political Violence, An American Tradition

The 50th anniversary of the explosion of the New York townhouse where members of the Weather Underground were building a anti-personnel bomb meant to go off at a dance at Fort Dix passed without much notice. Since Jay Nordlinger reminds us in his fine essay, however, we dismiss past violent attacks on American democracy at our peril. It’s not difficult today, as the nation is still reeling from the assault on the Capitol by a ragtag band of militiamen, white supremacists, conspiracy mongers and deluded people trapped in a riot, to forget that violent national terrorism has arrived from both the extreme right and extreme left.
From the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War into its regular resurgence from the 1920s and the 1950s, associations spewing hatred toward black, Jews, and Catholics murdered, terrorized, and endangered, often with the help and connivance of police officers. From the 1960s into the early 2000s, right-wing anti-government militias ranging from the Posse Comitatus and also Minutemen into the Order along with Aryan Nations stockpiled weapons and murdered both police officers and private citizens in reaction to what they deemed a Zionist plot to ruin American liberties. The most destructive action undertaken by national terrorists, that the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal courthouse, by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, militia sympathizers, murdered 168 people.
Left-wing terrorism has been more episodic and less harmful, but not eventful. Often associated with labor unrest, particularly among miners and syndicalists, additionally, it found a foothold in an anarchist movement that had its roots in Europe but put down roots in the united states. Given to blood-curdling threats to ruin capitalism, a number of its own adherents subscribed into the strategy of”propaganda of the deed,” or even assassination of political leaders. From the 1880s and 1890s it led to a spate of murders of heads of state around the planet.
The violent anarchist group, followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian immigrant who came in the United States in 1901 after being detained and expelled from numerous different countries, completed a series of bombings beginning in 1914. In addition to attacks on police stations, they had been also implicated in a failed attempt to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral, along with the arsenic poisoning of guests at a banquet honoring a Roman Catholic Cardinal in Chicago. Their bombing campaign ramped up in 1917 when among their bombs killed nine policemen and a civilian in Milwaukee.
Congress reacted by passing the Immigration Act of 1918 that created deportation of anarchists simpler. The Galleanistas reacted by warning that”deportation won’t stop the storm by reaching these shores. The storm is within and quite soon will leap and crash and annihilate you in fire and blood… We will dynamite you!” In 1919, they sent letter bombs to 36 prominent politicians and businessmen; many were found and disarmed, but many exploded causing injuries. More bombs targeted critics of anarchism and law enforcement; one at the house of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer exploded prematurely, killing the bomber. In response, the so-called Palmer Raids rounded up about 3000 anarchist along with communists and deported more than 500, for example Galleani. It did not stop the mayhem. The Galleanistas’ chief bomb-maker, Mario Buda, a close friend of both, vanished at exactly the same time, turning up in 1928 in Italy.
In a state as big and politically fractious because the United States, it is probably useless to expect that there won’t be pockets of taxpayers convinced that the authorities is irredeemably tainted and ready to use violence to advance their own goals.Although that the Weathermen never brought as much destruction or death as the anarchists, they and their imitators and allies were clear and present danger to American politics. The only thing that stood between the New York townhouse bombers and mass murder has been their very own incompetence; if the dynamite they had been using exploded, it killed four of these spared those Fort Dix soldiers.
Even the FBI calculated that at an 18-month interval between 1971 and 1973, there were over 2500 national bombings, an average of five daily. A Puerto Rican separatist group blew up a Revolutionary War milestone on Wall Street in 1975, killing four people and wounding dozens. Bombs were not the radicals’ just weapons. The Black Liberation Army implemented seven policemen between 1971 and 1972. The Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst and assassinated the black superintendent of schools in Oakland. Other off-shoots and imitators of those Weatherman bombed courthouses and company offices. And, like Nordlinger recounts, in a final spasm of violence, the May 19th Communist Group, an amalgam of ex-Weatherman along with ex-BLA thugs, murdered several policemen and security guards in 1981 during a botched armored car holdup in Nyack, New York.
Nordlinger notes that many of the Weathermen was able to prevent arrest. Several caught in the act did get long prison conditions. Even though Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark were eventually paroled, David Gilbert remains jailed because of his role at the Brinks murders. Susan Rosenberg was strangely pardoned by President Clinton. Bill Ayers never faced any consequences and, in his autobiography, published on September 11, 2001 lamented that he wished the team had detonated more bombs. Many Weathermen, including Ayers, his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Boudin, and Rosenberg found teaching positions in colleges and universities. Its chief bomb-maker, Ron Fliegelman, never obtained indicted; he returned home as the group imploded and became a special education teacher, unapologetic about his actions.
Like the Weathermen, not many of those anarchists were convicted to their bombings. Without bringing people in the act and, turning the openness of group members to testify against their own comrades, terrorism isn’t easy to prosecute. Frustration with the inability of law enforcement to capture the offenders directed the authorities to apply extra-legal tactics in the 1920 and the 1970s. The Wilson Administration and the Justice Department sanctioned the arrest of many aliens without cause. Even the FBI used illegal wiretaps and break-ins in a futile attempt to penetrate the closed ring of Weathermen activists. While Ayers got off scot-free, Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI bureaucrat (later revealed to be Deep Throat of Watergate fame) was detained and fined for his actions (he was later pardoned by President Reagan). A few of those recently assaulting the Capital were stupid enough to post selfies and videos on social networking, easing their prosecutions.
In a state as big and politically fractious because the United States, it is probably useless to expect that there won’t be pockets of taxpayers convinced that the authorities is irredeemably tainted and ready to use violence to advance their own objectives. Without an all-encompassing security state, it is also possible that they will sometimes have the ability to evade surveillance and act. Constant vigilance, as Nordlinger reminds us, is necessary. So also, is recalling the names and crimes of individuals who sought to destroy American democracy.