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Good Morning, Vietnam: A Shout Out From An Old Radical To Some Younger Radicals

March 6, 2008, 1:50 pm

As a historian I know perfectly well that the war in Iraq has major differences from the war in Vietnam, and it’s not just because depleted uranium weapons are now used in conventional combat, or because the troops are fighting in sand for oil, as opposed to fighting in jungles against Communism. But when I was driving to rowing practice at around 5:00 a.m. and heard about this bombing of the military recruiting center in Times Square, I thought, Wow. That I should live to see this again in my lifetime.

When I was a kid in the 1960′s and ’70′s, such bombings were associated with an increasingly militarized anti-war movement, made up mostly of white college students. I followed the doings of the Weather Underground very closely: my research on this radical antiwar movement and an unhealthy fascination with the doings of the Philadelphia mob are probably what, in the end, either led me to being a historian or — if you want to see that as more of a rational choice –shaped my interests as a historian who wrote her first book on the FBI and federal fugitives. If the mob was a little more geographically distant, I could encounter federal fugitives who were part of the anti-war movement by riding my bike down to the local post office. In those days, one went to the post office with some frequency: postage stamps were necessary household items, since we didn’t have email and we didn’t pay bills on line. In addition, if you wanted to send someone a present, you had to buy it, pack it up in a box, and take it to the post office and mail it. I’m mentioning this because, other than what I read in the newspaper (we didn’t have alternative radical weeklies on the Main Line), what I knew of Weatherman was what I read off the FBI Most Wanted posters in the post office. And then, a lot of those folks had gone to school in the area — Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr — schools where Quaker pacifism and social engagement led students naturally into community organizing and anti-war work. And a very few of those people became radical domestic terrorists.

My favorite was Bernadine Dohrn, who is now a law professor at Northwestern. Once, when no one was looking, I quietly tore her wanted poster down and took it home. I was not alone in this fascination, of course. Read any memoir of the movement, and Dohrn is the quintessential movement woman who some peopel would follow anywhere (mostly men, I think) and some people resented (because she was a powerful woman, and because Weatherman generally gave women very little power.) I dug her because she was sexy, tough and smart. I wouldn’t have put it that way then, but I think I wanted her to be my girlfriend. Some years later, when I had a girlfriend, not to mention a whole life, I finally met Dohrn for two seconds at a benefit of some kind. And I have to say, all these years later, she did not disappoint.

But let me say another thing: I have been catching up on my Weatherman reading as part of some new research on radical feminism, and I have also met a few other former cadre, many of whom have careers built around nurturing children and building peace from the ground up. But they also went through a painful process, some while doing serious jail time, of rebuilding lives that were shattered by the form of resistance they committed to as young people There are very few who do not deeply regret the violence for which they were responsible, and the ideological turn that work took that made them see such violence as a reasonable response to a violent war. So here’s my message for whoever bombed the recruiting station: I get it. I am even sympathetic to your rage. But stop now, before it’s too late. Because careful and confident as you may in relation to your technical skill with explosives and your capacity to plan the explosion around a time when no one is around, eventually you are going to kill someone who doesn’t deserve to die because you have a fantasy that you are really damaging the war effort. You will either kill or maim someone you don’t know who didn’t expect to walk into history that way, or you will kill a friend, as was the outcome of the 1970 explosion of an Eleventh Street townhouse in New York City, a home that five Weatherman cadre were using as a bomb factory. The anniversary of that explosion, eerily, given today’s events, is Saturday, March 8.

This post is in memory of Ted Gold, Terry Robbins and Diana Oughton, who were killed on that day.

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