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February 24, 2010

The Weathermen were terrorists

Ta-Nehesi Coates writes:

All jokes aside, again, I think the problem here is defining terrorist strictly as the work of "foreign attackers" is really dubious. Newsweek certainly had no problem identifying Bill Ayers as a "former terrorist" in its subhed back in 08. I'm not in their newsroom. But I'd be very interested to see whether they debated this.

The Weathermen were definitely terrorists. Just because they operated domestically doesn't make them any less terroristic. The IRA, the UDL, and the ETA are terrorist organizations that operate on home turf.

Terrorism is a tactic. It can be perpetrated by a group of people, or by a lone individual, at home or abroad. The essence of terrorism is using spectacular violence for psychological leverage in the service of ideology.

A terrorist attack is designed to spark fear out of all proportion to the person/group's operational capacity to inflict casualties, and therefore to give the terrorists disproportionate influence--either to coerce a population or a government directly, or to provoke their adversaries into an overreaction that will set off a backlash.

Terrorists hope to distort our perception of risk by committing memorable, dramatic, "telegenic" atrocities.

I can see some justification for reserving the term terrorist for those who are part of organized groups. If if an attack is obviously a suicide mission by a lone assailant, that kind of defeats the purpose of a terror attack. The attacker loses a lot of leverage by dying and thereby removing further credible threats.

On the other hand, not all terrorists are suicide bombers. Tim McVeigh was clearly a terrorist. He didn't team up with an organization to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City--but he had enough ties to the right-wing, anti-government movement to make us wonder. If he hadn't been caught, he probably would have committed more attacks. Years after McVeigh's execution, you still see Teabaggers showing up at rallies in "Tree of Liberty" t-shirts, an homage to McVeigh.

Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, waged a 17-year terror campaign against scientists, mathematicians, lobbyists, and other symbols of technological society. Early in his career, he nearly brought down an American Airlines flight with a bomb in the cargo hold. At one point, Kaczynski wrote a letter to the New York Times falsely claiming to be part of a group called the FC, or the Freedom Club. Was Kaczynski really any less of a terrorist because he turned out to be the FC's only member?

The lone wolf vs. group divide is looking increasingly arbitrary the era of networked organizations and virtual social movements. Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan acted alone, but he saw himself as being part of a much larger project.

In an age of mass communication and media, even a suicide bomber can hope to kindle a chain reaction that will continue long after he's gone. IRS bomber Joe Stack hoped that his attack would inspire others to rise up against the government, and sure enough, within minutes of the crash online shrines were popping up all over the web.


It's clear to me and you that Timothy McVeigh was a terrorist, but not to Newsweek Managing Editor Kathy Jones.

Kathy Jones writes:

Did the label terrorist ever successfully stick to McVeigh? Or the Unabomber? Or any of the IRS bombers in our violence list?

Here is my handy guide:

Lone wolfish American attacker who sees gov't as threat to personal freedom: bomber, tax protester, survivalist, separatist

Group of Americans bombing/kidnapping to protest U.S. policies on war/poverty/personal freedom/ - radical left-wing movement, right-wing separatists

All foreign groups or foreign individuals bombing/shooting to protest American gov't: terrorists.

McVeigh was definitely a terrorist and so was Stack under any conventional definition of the term. You do not have to belong to a formal group to be a terrorist, just use violence as a political tool.

To add a complication here, most people in the US view Hasan as a terrorist, even though by the usual definition he was not, since he attacked a military target. Attacking the military (or even the police) is not terrorism, but conventional war, or, in the case of a citizen, treason.

This isn't a case of Newsweek having a different view of what Terrorism is. It's a case of extreme journalistic sloth. they simply haven't done the least bit of research to sharpen their journalism. For example, looking at statutory definitions in US or international law. Instead, they essentially gossip about it in the laziest of ways.

I can see some justification for reserving the term terrorist for those who are part of organized groups.

I get where you're coming from, but I'd strongly disagree with accepting this definitional approach. The fate of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and that organization's adaptation since, show clearly that terrorist groups are depending more and more on decentralized, self-activating cells than centralized, hierarchical command structures. I think of it as "peer-to-peer" terrorism, to use the convenient Internet analogy.

There may be need to come up with new terms to slice and dice the various specie of terrorists

by religious / national cause - Muslim / Jihadi, Tamil ( apparently crushed, but these boys invented modern suicide bombing ), Basque, IRA, Chechen, Hamas, Hezbollah

by conventional " politics " etc - right wing general, Maoist, FARC, Environmental ( Earth First ) , anti abortion ( which may be religious but I dunno ), anarchist/get a life / lets go to Europe and break windows and have fun

by numbers- from really big organizations ( Hezbollah ), to tiny groups that can really command the attention of big countries ( ETA ) to lone freaks like Hasan and this latest plane flying maniac.

" Terrorist " by itself means nothing. There must be at least one additional word before it. Use of the word " militant " by the NY Times and others is a very lazy copout.

Martin Luther King was militant, and I didn't notice him driving explosive laden cars into any schoolbuses.


I agree with Alon that Hasan may not have been a terrorist. He was a dog, a traitor, a sneak who attacked the unarmed. He deserves the electric chair tomorrow morning, but as the definition goes, at least theoretically he attacked people who could fight back.

Speaking of 'Weathermen,' there's an excellent documentary on them at IMDb:

You can't help but conclude they were terrorists. What you also find is that the FBI and the Chicago police had there own illegal terrorist campaign against our own citizens. This included the murder of U.S. citizens by Federal and local police.

Wikipedia's page on the Weather Underground / WUO is pretty authoritative:

The Weather Underground were in their day what one might reasonably call by today's definition terrorists, but with numerous differences that put them in an entirely different class, as different from Al Qaieda as they were from the Red Army Faction. The Weather Underground engaged in violent direct actions intended to cause property damage but not kill people, and they engaged in robbery meant to expropriate funds to support their cause. They did kill people, of course, accidentally in two bombings and intentionally in a 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored truck.

There's no "but" to qualify their actions, like "but they were otherwise nonviolent..." because they weren't. They did though take great care in numerous actions to avoid loss of life, even loss of life to people they considered allied with Amerikan imperialism or whatever they called it. In that, they're similar to cells today like the Earth Liberation Front and some fringe animal rights activists who have engaged in arson and serious property damage including bombings, hoping to at least deter any of a number of things from property development to animal experimentation. Needless to say these tactics do not work as their proponents say they do.

It's arguable though that for their time the Weather Underground did serve a constructive though unavowed purpose, as an open-air mental institution, self-consciously under surveliance to the extent that there was probably no more than a degree of separation or two between any given WUO member and some sort of government informant.

Remember at the time there was a war and an unprecedented mobilization of young people against it:

...not to mention numerous assassinations of notable leaders of progressive politics and nonviolent movements (King, Kennedy, numerous SNCC volunteers), and mostly sympathetic national TV media coverage of those progressive movements.

In this context, the WUO probably did provide a less violent diversion for numerous mentally unstable activists who might otherwise have acted out violently and directly against numerous individuals, from President Nixon all the way down to the local draft board, which some disturbed relative, for example, might in a delusional state of mind want to act out violently in revenge for sending one’s brother off to be killed in a war that, additionally, so many thought was unwinnable and immoral to the point of being near-genocidal.

I agree that the term "terrorist" tends to be applied pretty narrowly in the mainstream media. People may well feel more threatened by one kind of terrorism or another, but to say that only one kind of terrorism is really terrorism is simply wrong, and not useful, IMO.

On the flip side, "al Qaida" seems to be applied rather arbitrarily, to any group that sympathizes with bin Laden, or that has "anti-American" posts on its website, for example.

I just saw the word "teabagger". The sound you hear is me removing you from my bookmarks list. You obscenity spewing jackass.

The Terrorists Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn Bombed the Policestation 1970 in San Francisco .
The young Sergeant Brian MCDONELL DIES .

That is Fact .

Greetings from Germany , Andy Maier

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