Would you think I was crazy if I told you there were 4,000 terrorist bombings in the US in a single year?
[F]rom January 1969 to April 1970, the United States sustained 4,330 bombings — 3,355 of them incendiary, 975 explosive — resulting in 43 deaths and $21.8 million in property damage.[nyt]
At a certain point I think we can say that the US experienced a full-on insurrection during 1968-1972 (or so) occurring at the crossroads between the civil rights movement and anti-war movement.
I vaguely remember some of the news, when I was a kid. Oddly, since I was growing up on the US east coast, I mostly remember the IRA’s bombings in England. Probably that’s a factor of age: I was in my 30s when the IRA blew up downtown Manchester with a 3,000-lb truck bomb [wik], but I was 7 when the Marine Midland bombing happened, and the Weather Underground’s bomb-making factory blew up, and the World Liberation Army and Symbionese Liberation Army were taking advantage of then-easily obtained dynamite to blow up targets of opportunity mostly in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago.
The bombers were not pursuing anything that can be considered a strategy – if anything bears out Sun Tzu’s dictum that “tactics without strategy are but the noise before defeat” it was the apparent random pointlessness of what they blew up. Consider the difference between the effectiveness of the IRA’s bombing campaign in England, and the radicals’ bombing in the US: the IRA made their agenda clear throughout, while the American radicals came across as just wanting to blow stuff up. The description “bombing campaign” hardly seems to apply – though 4,000 bombs is a hell of a lot – 10 a day, it managed to have relatively little impact. Another part of the radicals’ problem was that their marketing was ineffective: they were doing so many uncoordinated attacks that the media and the public tuned them out.
As one woman sniffed to a New York Post reporter after an attack by a Puerto Rican independence group in 1977: “Oh, another bombing? Who is it this time?’” [time]
There is a lesson in there, which more modern extremist groups have learned: you do not separate the establishment from its supporters by blowing up its supporters at random. The Weather Underground and others were trying to communicate with the establishment, but they came across as aimless.
I have often wondered if the establishment’s cringing fear of Saul Alinsky is because Alinsky articulated a strategic view of radicalism (though he was not an extremist) and they subliminally feared that his ideas would gain traction with the more violent fringe. Alinsky didn’t advocate violence, but the establishment is always threatened by anyone who can articulate political discontent; their strategy is to marginalize and dismiss, which means that effective media messaging is the biggest threat to their control.
It’s still rather amazing to contemplate the level of violence and the citizenry’s non-reaction to it: [time]
In a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day. Because they were typically detonated late at night, few caused serious injury, leading to a kind of grudging public acceptance. The deadliest underground attack of the decade, in fact, killed all of four people, in the January 1975 bombing of a Wall Street restaurant. News accounts rarely carried any expression or indication of public outrage.
Why? My theory is that the establishment had, in fact, lost the support of the general public. In 1970, the establishment shot itself in the foot, along with killing 4 students at Kent State – the drumbeat of news about violence was going both directions: we saw photos of establishment goons beating civil rights protesters and siccing dogs on them, and establishment goons bayonetting protesters (one little-known thing about the Kent State massacre is that the guard units had been using fixed bayonets and had already stabbed several dozen protesters) the establishment’s overreaction had helped justify and excuse the bombing campaigns. Had the extremists been less disorganized and had studied their Alinsky and Sun Tzu, they would have had a dramatically different impact.The Weather Underground started to lose the thread when they were media-silenced so that their agenda was dismissed. In truth, Weather Underground was a bunch of amateur jerks, but they were amateur jerks with dynamite: their declaration of war was a response to the Chicago Police Department’s murder of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers. It’s interesting because they had in mind to go after military targets (the bombs that went off and blew up the Greenwich Village townhouse were intended for an event at the military base at Ft Dix, New Jersey) and police – they went after police headquarters, The Pentagon, etc.
Bombers appear to be the key piece: when a radical group finds someone who’s willing to work with the scary stuff and perfects their technique, then you can have waves of attacks all tied to one person: [nyt]
Mr. Melville was apprehended with three others: George Demmerle, John D. Hughey III and Jane L. Alpert, a Swarthmore College alumna who was romantically linked with Mr. Melville. (Mr. Demmerle turned out to be a paid F.B.I. informant.) Mr. Melville was ultimately convicted of plotting eight bombings:
- The United Fruit Company warehouse at the Grace Pier on the Hudson River (July 27).
- The Marine Midland building at 140 Broadway (Aug. 20).
- The Federal Office Building at 26 Federal Plaza (Sept. 19)
- The Armed Forces Induction Center at 39 Whitehall Street (Oct. 7)
- The Chase Manhattan Bank at 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza (Nov. 11)
- The Standard Oil offices in the RCA Building at Rockefeller Plaza (Nov. 11)
- The General Motors Building at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue (Nov. 11)
- The Criminal Courts Building at 100 Centre Street (Nov. 12)
A letter to The New York Times from the bombers read:
The Establishment is in for some big surprises if it thinks that kangaroo courts and death sentences can arrest a revolution.
In 1970, Mr. Melville was sentenced to 13 to 18 years in prison for his role plotting the eight bombings. The following year, he was killed during the Attica prison uprising.
Melville wasn’t a member of any particular radical group. He acted on his own initiative and decided he was going to blow up some establishment targets. It seems to me that the process is similar to how we describe “islamists” becoming “radicalized”: people get sick of seeing whoever it is they identify with beaten, oppressed, or killed – and they learn to make bombs, and they start fighting back.
Weather’s seven-year bombing campaign has been misunderstood in fundamental ways. To cite just one canard, Weather’s attacks, for much of its life, were the work not of 100 or more underground radicals, as was widely assumed, but of a core group of barely a dozen people; almost all its bombs, in fact, were built by the same capable young man – its bomb guru. Nor, contrary to myth, did Weather’s leaders operate from grinding poverty or ghetto anonymity.
So, between Melville (an independent) and Weather’s bomb-guru Ron Fliegelman, they were the source of a huge number of the bombs. The Vanity Fair piece about the Weather Underground’s bomb-building process [vf] is a good read, and it’s sort of scary: they really had no idea what they were doing.
That Thursday in the kitchen, they focused on practical details. There was talk of how much dynamite to use. No one, least of all Robbins, knew how much damage a single stick would do or whether it would take 1 or 10 sticks to blow up a building. Someone said dynamite did more damage if inserted into a pipe. Not much dynamite could go inside a pipe, however, so Robbins said he planned to pack roofing nails into the bomb as well, in order to do as much damage as possible. Wrapping up, he described the electrical circuit to trigger the explosion, as he had been taught. Someone asked if it would contain a safety switch, a way to test the bomb short of detonation. Robbins hadn’t a clue. “Terry had been told to do it a certain way, and he was too insecure in his knowledge to debate it,” Wilkerson recalled. “He cut off the discussion. He was the leader and he would take responsibility for how it was to be done. . . . No one else spoke up.”
I’m kind of mind-boggled at the idea of just sort of throwing together a bomb based on “someone said…” At one point, apparently, the Weather Underground’s bomb-meister figured out that you could check that the circuit was reliable by using a small battery and a lightbulb. I guess they’d never heard of an ohm-meter. But: just the idea of checking a bomb’s circuit using a battery and anything makes me feel a bit weak in the knees. Obviously, nobody knows exactly what went wrong to set off the bomb that was being built, because the person who set it off was turned into bloody chunks of meat.
The crane operator was just finishing his shift at five o’clock when Detective Perotta urged him to lift out one final load. The big bucket splashed into a hole in the middle of the rubble, now filled with seven feet of black rainwater. When the bucket rose, Perotta lifted his hand again. Between the bucket’s teeth was a gray, basketball-sized globe. Perotta stepped closer and peered at the muddy orb. It was studded with roofing nails and encrusted with dripping protuberances. It took a moment for Perotta to realize what they were: blasting caps. Slowly it dawned on him: the entire blob was made of dynamite—enough explosive to blow up the entire block. Albert Seedman would say it was the single largest explosive device ever seen in Manhattan.
The block was evacuated, the bomb squad called in. Working through the night, they whisked the dynamite away, then found 57 more brightred sticks deep in the rubble, along with all the wristwatches, coils of orange fuse, and blasting caps Robbins had secreted in the subbasement. Seedman was terrified that one of his men might be killed if they stumbled on more dynamite. At his request, both James Wilkerson and his wife stepped in front of television cameras and beseeched their daughter to tell them how much more dynamite might be inside and how many bodies. They received no answer.
I probably should add a disclaimer: I don’t think bombs are a good weapon to use against oppression; they are too indiscriminate. Indiscriminate war on civilians using high explosive is the purview of government.
“occurring at the crossroads between the civil rights movement and anti-war movement” – My opinion is that the establishment was losing control of the situation and fell back on its instinctive “divide and conquer” tactics by granting the civil rights movement some key territory (then continuing to drag its feet and fight tooth and nail to maintain apartheid, as we see today) and retrenching on the Vietnam war, thereby pulling the white middle class out of the civil rights movement. The natural alliance between anti-war and anti-apartheid met at the junction of “too many poor black people getting drafted”, Muhammad Ali refusing to go to Vietnam, and the largely white college-aged protesters. By re-dividing the alliance that was forming, the establishment managed to moot any significant change to apartheid or militarism.
While I was looking for pictures of bombings, I stumbled across this stunning image by John Collier, shot in 1941. Grand Central terminal was a target of some of the bombers, but they never attacked it, mostly preferring to attack ‘establishment’ targets. I’m including this photo just because it’s an example of the highest artistry in terms of composition, exposure, depth of field, movement. I don’t know much about John Collier, but I bet he was jumping around yelling for joy in the darkroom when he saw this materialize in the developer tray.