Political Violence, An American Tradition

The 50th anniversary of the explosion of the New York townhouse where members of the Weather Underground were building an anti-personnel bomb intended to go off at a dance at Fort Dix passed without much notice. As Jay Nordlinger reminds us in his fine essay, however, we ignore past violent attacks on American democracy at our peril. It is easy now, as the nation is still reeling from the assault on the Capitol by a ragtag band of militiamen, white supremacists, conspiracy mongers and deluded men and women caught up in a riot, to forget that violent domestic terrorism has come from both the extreme right and extreme left. Just a day after Joe Biden’s inauguration, anarchists in the Pacific Northwest renewed their attacks on symbols of democratic life, in this case the headquarters of the Democratic Party, just months after they had engaged in a sustained campaign of fire bombings, arson and violence against police stations, businesses and government buildings in Portland and Seattle.

From the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War to its periodic resurgence in the 1920s and the 1950s, organizations spewing hatred toward black, Jews, and Catholics killed, terrorized, and threatened, often with the support and connivance of government officials. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, right-wing anti-government militias ranging from the Posse Comitatus and Minutemen to the Order and Aryan Nations stockpiled weapons and killed both government officials and private citizens in response to what they deemed a communist and Zionist plot to destroy American liberties. The most destructive act perpetuated by domestic terrorists, the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal courthouse, by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, militia sympathizers, killed 168 people.

Left-wing terrorism has been more episodic and less destructive, but no less eventful. Often associated with labor unrest, especially among miners and syndicalists, it also found a foothold in an anarchist movement that had its origins in Europe but put down roots in America. Given to blood-curdling threats to destroy capitalism, some of its adherents subscribed to the tactic of “propaganda of the deed,” or assassination of political leaders. In the 1880s and 1890s it led to a spate of murders of heads of state around the world. One anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated President William McKinley in 1901; he claimed he had been inspired by Emma Goldman, the most famous anarchist in America.

The most violent anarchist group, followers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1901 after being arrested and expelled from numerous other countries, carried out a series of bombings beginning in 1914. In addition to attacks on police stations, they were implicated in a failed effort to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the arsenic poisoning of guests at a banquet honoring a Roman Catholic Cardinal in Chicago. Their bombing campaign ramped up in 1917 when one of their bombs killed nine policemen and a civilian in Milwaukee.

Congress responded by passing the Immigration Act of 1918 that made deportation of anarchists easier. The Galleanistas responded by warning that “deportation will not stop the storm from reaching these shores. The storm is within and very soon will leap and crash and annihilate you in blood and fire… We will dynamite you!” In 1919, they sent letter bombs to 36 prominent politicians and businessmen; most were discovered and disarmed, but several exploded causing injuries. More bombs targeted critics of anarchism and law enforcement; one at the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer exploded prematurely, killing the bomber. In response, the so-called Palmer Raids rounded up about 3000 anarchist and communists and deported more than 500, including Galleani. It did not stop the mayhem. Two days after Sacco and Vanzetti—members of Galleani’s group—were indicted for murder committed during a 1919 robbery in Boston, a bomb exploded on Wall Street killing 38 people and wounding several hundred more, in an apparent act of revenge. The Galleanistas’ chief bomb-maker, Mario Buda, a close friend of the two, vanished at the same time, turning up in 1928 in Italy.

In a country as large and politically fractious as the United States, it is probably futile to expect that there will not be pockets of citizens convinced that the government is irredeemably corrupt and willing to use violence to advance their goals.

Although the Weathermen never caused as much destruction or death as the anarchists, they and their imitators and allies were a clear and present danger to American democracy. The only thing that stood between the New York townhouse bombers and mass murder was their own incompetence; when the dynamite they were using exploded, it killed four of them but spared those Fort Dix soldiers.

The FBI calculated that in an 18-month period between 1971 and 1973, there were more than 2500 domestic bombings, an average of five per day. A Puerto Rican separatist group blew up a Revolutionary War landmark on Wall Street in 1975, killing four people and wounding dozens. Bombs were not the radicals’ only weapons. The Black Liberation Army executed 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 the Weatherman bombed courthouses and corporate offices. And, as Nordlinger recounts, in a final spasm of violence, the May 19th Communist Group, an amalgam of ex-Weatherman and ex-BLA thugs, killed several policemen and security guards in 1981 during a botched armored car holdup in Nyack, New York.

Nordlinger notes that many of the Weathermen managed to avoid arrest. Several caught in the act did receive long prison terms. While Kathy Boudin and Judith Clark were eventually paroled, David Gilbert remains jailed for his role in the Brinks murders. Susan Rosenberg was inexplicably pardoned by President Clinton. Bill Ayers never faced any consequences and, in his autobiography, published on September 11, 2001 lamented that he wished the group had detonated more bombs. His cynical and outrageous boast quoted by Nordlinger, “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country,” was—and is—unfortunately accurate. Several Weathermen, including Ayers, his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, Boudin, and Rosenberg found teaching positions in colleges and universities. Its chief bomb-maker, Ron Fliegelman, never got indicted; he returned home as the group imploded and became a special education teacher, unapologetic about his actions.

Like the Weathermen, very few of the anarchists were ever convicted for their bombings. Without catching people in the act and, absent the willingness of group members to testify against their comrades, terrorism is not easy to prosecute. Frustration with the inability of law enforcement to catch the criminals led the government to employ extra-legal tactics in both 1920 and the 1970s. The Wilson Administration and the Justice Department sanctioned the arrest of many aliens without cause. The FBI used illegal wiretaps and break-ins in a futile effort to penetrate the closed circle 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 convicted and fined for his actions (he was later pardoned by President Reagan). Some of those recently assaulting the Capital were stupid enough to post selfies and videos on social media, facilitating their prosecutions.

In a country as large and politically fractious as the United States, it is probably futile to expect that there will not be pockets of citizens convinced that the government is irredeemably corrupt and willing to use violence to advance their goals. Without an all-encompassing security state, it is also likely that they will occasionally be able to evade surveillance and act. Constant vigilance, as Nordlinger reminds us, is necessary. So too, is remembering the names and crimes of those who sought to destroy American democracy.