Imagine an America in which there are more than 1,900 domestic bombings in an 18-month period. In other words, that’s about five bombings a day. Imagine that the targets are places like police stations and the Pentagon. Imagine that people just accepted this as part of daily life in America. No way would that happen today; not at a time when a single unclaimed bag in an airport can set off breaking news alerts on CNN.
But, this was a reality in America, and not that long ago; it’s just that a lot of people have no recollection of it.
In all comes back in “Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence,” a new book by Bryan Burrough. Burrough spoke to the Texas Standard about his book and why this era of political violence seems lost in America’s’ memory banks.
“It’s strange. Part of it has to be 9/11 – 9/11 and the violence that we had during the 90s was so visceral, and it knocked us for such a loop, that it’s harder to remember the more widespread violence and domestic terrorism that we experienced during the 70s,” Burrough says.
So how did America become somewhat inured to daily reports of attacks?
“If you lived in the Bay Area, if you lived in California, certainly if you lived in New York, bombings – protest bombings, people protesting the Vietnam War, people protesting all manner of things during the 1970s – were very much a function of daily life,” he says.
In fact, Burrough says things were so bad during America domestically, that radical bombings that didn’t kill people ranked very low on people’s concerns. The majority of the perpetrators were young people with left-leaning political ideologies who decided that peaceful protests wasn’t good enough.
“What we’re talking about in ‘Days of Rage’ is a narrative history of the six major underground groups of the 1970s,” Burroughs says. “Groups like The Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army…There were several hundred young 60s-era militants who basically were unwilling to give up their dreams of massive change from the 60s, and so in the 70s they went underground and they began bombing things: courthouses, banks, corporate headquarters, the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol.”
Burroughs says the biggest scandal of the decade, after Watergate, was the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, a young 19-year-old Berkeley heiress kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Eventually she joined the group and began robbing banks alongside the group, which spurred a national debate.
Sexual initiations and sexual rituals were a big part of this underground movement, Burrough says, adding to the cult-like mythos of the groups.
“They did all these things to break down the barriers between themselves. In the case of the Weather Underground, for instance, they resorted to orgies because they thought that was literally the easiest way for them to connect.”
And those responsible for the kidnap of Patty Hearst? Burroughs says the 12 members who were living together promoted ‘living in unity’ by all sharing the same toothbrush.
Burroughs says that the majority of underground instigators during this era weren’t too partial to interviews during the research leg of the book. He needed to go a different route than cold-calling people from the phone book and asking them to describe that time they bombed a building in 1972.
“I ultimately discovered that the group of radical attorneys who represented the defendants in these underground groups was really small,” he says.
By reaching out to them, Burroughs was able to document the historical significance of these groups.
“These people were young people back in the 1970s. Whatever you may think of what they did, it’s undeniable that they gave up a lot,” Burroughs says. “They sacrificed their daily lives to pursue what they thought were admirable goals: the end of the Vietnam War, improving the plight of African Americans in this country. Goals that I think any of us would say were good goals. So the question becomes: To what end are you willing to pursue those? Are you willing to engage in violence?”
On the one hand we can think of the culprits as well-meaning but misguided in their attempts to heal what ailed America, but there was often violence, and people were hurt and some died. Did the crimes that were committed overshadow the altruistic goals? Can we dismiss that innocents were killed? Burroughs says his intent near the end of the book was to answer these question.
“I’m not a lesson-giver. I’m a write the facts and let the reader make their own lessons,” he says. “But I think it’s pretty difficult to accept killing innocent people in acts of political violence. “It’s very difficult to justify.”