Notes on “Days of Rage” (2)

Reading Bryan Burrough’s book Days of Rage from cover to cover over the weekend, I flipped over the book. In this post I continue to jot notes on the book to amplify the attention it has received so far. Part 1 is posted here; our interview with Bryan Burrough, recorded on Tuesday, is posted here.

• Burrough tells the story of six terrorist groups that conducted campaigns of “revolutionary violence,” as the book’s subtitle has it, over the period 1970-1985. One common thread that unites the groups is their militant leftism. In addition, each of the groups went “underground” to pursue their activities. What does that mean? How did they go “underground”? What was “underground” life like? I’ve always wondered. Burrough has the story, and it is indeed interesting. As for quality of life “underground,” Burrough presents a mixed picture. For Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, I think it is fair to say, life was good in southern California.

• Burrough’s book covers the SLA through its dissolution. He therefore includes the story of Kathleen Soliah’s teaming up with the group and her participation in the crimes it committed to sustain itself after the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Burrough does not explore Soliah’s life after the dissolution of the SLA, but she was living an extraordinarily visible and extremely comfortable life as a physician’s wife and mother of three in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul under under the name Sara Jane Olson until her apprehension in 1999. She had built up friendships in the Twin Cities’ Democratic establishment and artistic community. After her capture, the Minnesota chapter of the National Lawyers Guild held a fundraiser for her in St. Paul at which Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison (then an aspiring politician practicing law in Minneapolis) was a featured speaker. We will return to this aspect of the story in part 3 of this series.

• Burrough occasionally credits the members of the six groups with “idealism.” He is unable to fill in the picture of the groups’ revolutionary objectives, however, because their Marxism was little more than the vessel into which they poured their bottomless hate.

• The Symbionese Liberation Army represents a sort of reductio ad absurdum of leftist hatred and nihilism. Burrough recalls the group’s motto: “DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE!” Burrough drily observes that it was “a line that sounded as if uttered by the villain in a 1930s-era Buck Rogers serial[.]”

• When it comes to the SLA, Burrough briefly drops the objectivity he brings to his examination of the history of each group. The SLA did its best to mimic the routines of the Weatherman group, he writes, “but all of it was in service to a worldview that veered between the comical and the truly insane.” I think that is an observation that is generally applicable to the groups under review. Their truly serious object was the active organization and expression of their hatreds.

• Here is Burrough’s account of the SLA’s professed goals: “It sought to abolish prisons, marriage, and rent while attacking ‘racism, sexism, ageism, capitalism, fascism, individualism, possessiveness, competitiveness and all other institutions that have sustained capitalism.'” Plus ça change

• The SLA was of course the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst and compelled her father to undertake the distribution millions of dollars worth of free food to the poor on designated days in the Bay area. Let me devote a separate bullet point to Ronaldus Magnus’s “memorable quip,” as Burrough calls it: “It’s just too bad we can’t have an epidemic of botulism.”

• Weatherman is probably the most famous of the groups that Burrough covers. I had thought that Weatherman and the other groups were largely motivated by opposition to the Vietnam War. Burrough demurs, however, quoting Weatherman member Howard Machtinger: “We related to the war in a purely opportunistic way. We were happy to draw new members who were antiwar. But this was never about the war.” What was “this” about? Burrough writes: “What the underground movement was truly about–what it was always about–was the plight of black Americans. Every single underground group of the 1970s, with the notable exception of the Puerto Rican FALN, was concerned first and foremost with the struggle of blacks against police brutality, racism, and government repression.”

• Burrough traces the emergence of the Black Liberation Army from a succession of black leaders. Beginning with Robert Williams, Burrough traces the line of succession to Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver. Burrough identifies Cleaver as the essential inspiration of the Black Liberation Army. “Not only would he emerge as the guiding force behind the Black Liberation Army,” Burrough writes, “but, having forged alliances between black convicts and white Bay area radicals, he created the intellectual framework for what became the Symbionese Liberation Army.”

• Cleaver made his name with the book Soul On Ice, expounding the revolutionary virtue of raping white women. Deemed “an exceptional volume, both in what the author says and in how he says it” by Thomas Lask in the New York Times of March 13, 1968, and “highly readable and often witty” by Charlayne Hunter (as she then was) in the March 24, 1968 number of the New York Times Book Review, Soul On Ice became a publishing phenomenon and Cleaver an international sensation. I looked up those New York Times reviews myself, for the record. Eric Hoffer’s assessment was more reliable than those of the Times. Hoffer observed that Cleaver’s book would more aptly have been titled Soul On Horse Manure, though Cleaver later became a Christian, a capitalist, and, in 1977, a memorable guest of WFB on Firing Line, his second time around on the show.

• The groups whose story Burrough tells conducted a campaign that included thousands of bombings and many horrible murders, yet most have been entirely forgotten. Why? In his epilogue, Burrough gives the penultimate word to Joseph Connor. On his ninth birthday Connor lost his father in the 1975 bombing of the Fraunces Tavern by the FALN in New York City. Burrough notes that “[W]hat truly drives [Connor] ‘mental’ is the notion that modern terrorism on U.S. soil dates only far aback as the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. ‘That gets me every time,’ he says. ‘To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not ever remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. So they were let off the hook. That what we’re left with today, a soft view of these people, when they were as hardened as anybody. They were just terrorists. Flat-out terrorists.'”

• Burrough also notes that Bill Clinton pardoned 16 of the 18 FALN terrorists convicted in the group’s two bombing campaigns; the other two convicted FALN members rejected Clinton’s offer of pardon. Debra Burlingame condemned these “terror pardons” in a superb 2008 Wall Street Journal column. Kudos to Bryan Burrough for remembering these events in his important book and making it more difficult for us to forget again.


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