Monday, January 30, 2006

Empty Streets
Last week, I reread Rads by Tom Bates, about the 1970 bombing of the Army Math Research Center (AMRC) at the University of Wisconsin. For three years, from Dow Day in 1967 to the August day Sterling Hall was bombed, Madison was the "third coast," a national center of student protest against the Vietnam War. After the bombing, which George Will called "the Hiroshima of the American left," the movement largely died, not just here, but on campuses across the country.

There was a sense among many students at the UW back then that because the war was an intolerable crime against innocent civilians, and because the University would not respond to demands to disengage from the war machine, direct action was justified. Karl Armstrong, leader of the conspiracy that bombed Sterling Hall, took more action than most--setting fire to the UW's Red Gym in an attempt to take out the ROTC, burning the UW Primate Lab (mistakenly thinking it was Selective Service Headquarters), and attempting to drop gasoline bombs on the Badger Army Ammunition Plant north of Madison. The "New Year's Gang" that took credit for the attacks over the holidays in 1969-70 was primarily Armstrong, although he had help from his brother, Dwight, and a couple of others. The University steadfastly refused to close the AMRC, and over the summer of 1970, Armstrong hatched the plan to blow up the building in which it was housed.

Armstrong was captured in Canada in 1972 and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. (A researcher working in the building was killed in the blast.) At his sentencing hearing, various all-stars from the American left came to Madison to argue that his sentence should be mitigated--in effect, that the bombing was a justifiable response to the illegal war in Vietnam. It didn't work--the judge gave Armstrong the maximum. Armstrong didn't help himself much. Bates portrays him as a rather low-key revolutionary until his arrest, when he became a megalomaniac who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his notoriety, and so his sentencing hearing had more than its share of circuslike moments, which helped his credibility and that of his supporters not a whit.

A successful strike on AMRC might have further energized the American Left, if the bombing hadn't killed the researcher, Robert Fassnacht. That act cost the movement many of its supporters, young and old, and hardened the attitudes of those already opposed to student protest. And the movement, which had been seething with energy a few months before, in the wake of Cambodia and Kent State, withered away in a matter of weeks.

I'm not the only person who thinks that this country needs more of the spirit of the 1960s at this moment--the willingness not just to stand up and but to take action against the illegal actions of an immoral government. We've got more reason now than in the 1960s, because the United States is not just waging an illegal war for a dubious purpose, but its government is consolidating power at home in a Constitution-nullifying fashion that would make Zombie Nixon smile from his perch in Hell. If this were 1967, people would be in the streets. Some of that same energetic impulse exists in people who huddle behind computers and write, but if they stay huddled, it's not the same thing. And so it seems highly unlikely that anybody will be moved to blow stuff up anytime soon in response to what the current administration is doing. Thus, we may finally end up with the fascist state that the students saw coming in the 1960s--not through the application of hobnailed boots to the collective groin of the citizenry, but with docile acquiescence. Go ahead, take my rights, just don't tell me I'll have to give up my cable.

Let me be clear, so my name doesn't end up in some Homeland Security database (if it isn't already there): I'm not suggesting that things need to be blown up here in 2006. I am suggesting only that perhaps, the lack of organized protest today is itself a legacy of Sterling Hall. By tarring all of the student protesters of the 1960s with a brush wielded by a few murdering bombers, Sterling Hall may have hastened and strengthened the attempts by conservatives, from the 1970s to now, to discredit the politics of the entire 1960s generation--and anything that looks like it. If you tell people that it's time to turn off their iPods and get into the streets, you're a relic who has missed the history of the last 35 years. The protesters were fools, because they accomplished nothing, and some of them were murderers. Don't you remember?

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