Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Radical Chic 

I recently watched The Weather Underground, a fascinating documentary about the extremist, anti Vietnam war SDS splinter group. Its members engaged in a terrorist campaign of bombings on architectural symbols of ‘the establishment’ (mostly bank and post offices, always after hours) from the late 60s until the mid 70s, when the US finally withdrew from Vietnam and the group disintegrated without its unifying cause. The group was founded because, in their words, despite million person strong marches on D.C. and other forms of non violent protests, the war was escalating and the American public seemed content to go about their lives while the body count and atrocities mounted in Vietnam. The Weather Underground, comprised primarily of incredibly privileged Ivy League college students, believed with all the idealistic, romantic, uncompromising fervor of youth that a bloody, explosive revolution to overthrow the government was the only answer to what Martin Luther King called the “abominable, evil, unjust war in Vietnam.”

From the documentary’s archival interviews and news footage of the members of the Weather Underground, it seems that many were playing revolutionary, mostly because of their tender age. (Someone described it as a children's crusade gone mad). Articulate, multagenic Bernadine Dorhn, dressed in her microminis, gave the movement a glamorous, radical mystique. Children of privilege thought they were, they wanted to align themselves with more oppressed 'authentic' groups like the Black Panthers, who seemed for to regard them dubiously, especially after The Days of Rage debacle, a march organized by the Weather Underground march in Chicago in October, 1969. During the march all of those inviting pane glass windows that they protestors were passing by proved too much temptation. After the first one was smashed the night erupted into a free for all, riot of pointless destruction and hooliganism.

When stopped and questioned by the press about the event, Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers condemned and dismissed the riot in an impromptu, hypnotic rap.

We believe that the weathermen’s action is anachronistic, opportunistic, individualistic. It’s chauvinistic, it’s Custeristic. And that’s the bad part about it. It’s Custeristic in that its leaders take their people into situations where the people can be massacred and they call it a revolution.
It’s nothing but child’s play. It’s folly. We think these people may be sincere but they’re misguided. They’re muddleheads and they’re scatterbrained.

Their powerful, influential daddies spared them from being rooted out and assassinated by the police and FBI, unlike members of other radical groups, like Fred Hampton. But their daddies couldn’t save them from themselves, as in the case when 3 of them blew themselves up while building a bomb in an expensive Greenwich village apartment. The three who died were building a bomb to explode during a noncommissioned officers dance at Fort Dix. Even though the dates of the officers would be killed, Mark Rudd said that the builders of the bomb justified their plan because “there are no innocent in this war of aggression.”

One of the most heartbreaking scenes is an interview with James Outin, the wealthy, Republican banker father of 28 year old Diana Outin, who died in the blast. Looking like he was in shock, he said, “I've been asked how I would advise other parents and I have answered that I have no advice at all. I wouldn't know how to advise myself. I'm looking for guidelines myself from somebody else.”

The group disbanded and the members went underground in the mid 70s. In the early 80s most wanted individuals, weary of living on the lam, turned themselves into the FBI. Almost all of the charges against them were dropped because most of the FBI’s evidence against them was gathered illegally and therefore inadmissible. Today, many have settled into normal, bourgeois lives ensconsed in cushy academia (Bill Ayers ia an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bernadine Dohrn, an associate professor and director at Northwestern University's Children and Justice Center, Mark Rudd teaches at a junior college in New Mexico.)

In the recent interviews of them featured in the documentary, most of the members' politics are still way left of center, but some like Mark Rudd seem haunted and embarrassed and befuddled by his actions back then. Others, like David Gilbert, serving a life sentence for his involvement in a Brink’s truck robbery that resulted in the death of a driver and 2 police officers, remain cheerfully unrepentant.

The filmmakers put their actions it in some context by showing the incredibly violent zietgest of the time, but they don’t explain why the US felt compelled to stop the red tide at any cost, why the US was involved in the Vietnam in the first place. The film doesn’t go into the horrors that were taking place in communist countries, where millions and millions of people were being murdered in totalitarian nightmares that made Orwell’s 1984 look like a walk in the park. With the luxury of hindsight we can see what folly the Vietnam war was, and be amazed at how long it took for our government to admit its mistake and withdraw, even faced with undeniable evidence of the pointlessness of the war. Too bad the decision makers hadn't bothered to read the eerily prescient The Quiet American, in which Graham Greene laid out what a grave mistake US involvement in Vietnam would be, and how the Domino Effect just didn't apply in that country. Anyway, as painful and costly as Vietnam was, I’m just relieved that the United States finally learned a lesson about the folly of fighting insurgents on their own soil. Oh, wait…

Todd Gitlin, former SDS president who was ousted by the Weathermen, provides the wisest warning about zealotry and what happens when people cross the line into terrorism.

I think what has to be stared at is that they brought themselves, they were not brought, they brought themselves to that point, to the point of which they were ready to be mass murderers. This is mass murder we're talking about. They came to this conclusion which is the conclusion that was come to by all the great killers, whether Hitler or Stalin or Mao, that they have a grand project for the transformation and purification of the world. And in the face of that project, ordinary life is dispensable. They joined that tradition.

I highly recommend this very illuminating documentary that couldn't be more relevant and timely.

"But their daddies couldn’t save them from themselves, as in the case when 3 of them blew themselves while building a bomb..."

They blew themselves?? Far out!

Loved seeing you in Nashville.

Whoops. Freudian slip! There was a whole lot of bizarre free love going on in those communes, but nothing that freaky. I done fixed it.
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