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America the Enemy : THEIR POLITICS ARE LIGHT YEARS APART, BUT THE BOMBERS OF THE '60S AND '90S SHARE VOLATILE RHETORIC, TANGLED PARANOIA AND A BELIEF THAT VIOLENCE IS A LEGITIMATE WEAPON.

June 18, 1995|NINA J. EASTON | Staff writer Nina J. Easton's last article for the magazine examined the Republican revolution on Capitol Hill. Contributing research to this piece were Emily Gest, Maloy Moore and Caleb Gessessee.

There's nothing like a bathtub concoction of fuel oil and fertilizer to dramatize the wild-eyed anger in America that no voting booth can assuage. The ingredients are easy to buy, the bomb easy to plant in an open society and, with some careful planning, an explosion can be targeted at the symbols of political rage without any human blood tainting the message.

In the wee hours of March 12, 1970, when bombs tore through the insides of three Manhattan skyscrapers, a warning call had given police half an hour to evacuate the night-shift cleaning crews. That left members of Revolutionary Force 9 free to make their point, without being labeled murderers, that the corporations housed in those buildings were "enemies of all life" in "death-directed Amerika." In press accounts, those three explosions fell in the category of "extensive damage, no injuries," which, along with "minor damage, no injuries," was the predominant label for the hundreds of bombs that rocked the nation between 1969 and 1971. In California alone, 20 explosions a week rocked the state during the summer of 1970.

But it was a handful of fatalities that did the most damage to the cause of leftist radicals intent on "bringing the war home." Days before the skyscraper bombs, an explosion destroyed a fashionable Greenwich Village townhouse, leaving dead two men and a young woman, Diana Oughton, her headless body riddled with the nails she and her fellow radicals had apparently poured into the bombs they were manufacturing in the basement. "The police claimed, and the Weathermen never denied, that the roofing-nail bombs were intended for use at Columbia University," according to '60s historian Todd Gitlin. That same spring, two black militants were killed in a Maryland car bomb explosion; a police officer died in the bombing of his San Francisco precinct station.

In August of the same year, Bob Fassnacht, a promising 33-year-old red-haired physicist working overtime to crack the secret of superconductivity, was blown face-down, his internal organs crushed by a fireball force, when a stolen van packed with farm fertilizer and fuel oil exploded outside his lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The New Year's Gang had given the "pigs" a five-minute warning before blowing out the guts of the building housing the controversial Army Mathematics Research Center. But the bomb went off prematurely and Fassnacht, who opposed the war his killers were protesting, never returned home his wife and three small children.

A quarter of a century later a different political movement has spawned its own brand of dangerous revolutionary, one whose reality is also shaped by insularity, an intense hatred of government authority and a searing apocalyptic vision. Violent radicals from both eras share much common ground: "Both are moralists," says Allen J. Matusow, dean of humanities at Rice University and author of "The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s." "They believe the government is perpetrating evil in some way and that you must resist evil by carrying out guerrilla acts if necessary. These are moral extremists."

Regardless of whether the murder of 168 children and federal office workers starting their day in downtown Oklahoma City turns out to have been a political act--and many signs suggest that it was--there is unnerving evidence elsewhere of rising political violence from the right: the bombings of abortion clinics and the murders of five medical workers; heavily armed militia members engaged in standoffs with federal officials attempting to enforce environmental, child support and gun-control laws; the shooting of a Missouri highway patrolman in apparent retaliation for the arrest of an anti-government activist.

Just as the peace and civil rights movements were forced to confront fringe radicals carrying out terrorist acts in its name, so, too, the small government and anti-abortion movements are facing the emergence of like-minded activists who view violence as a legitimate political tool. As in the '60s, the fringe players of the '90s are small in numbers, but by talking of violent revolution in a country where speech is free and dissent protected, they sit like 800-pound elephants on the wings of broad political movements.

Today, the spotlight is on Rush Limbaugh for warning that violent revolution was imminent; on G. Gordon Liddy for his on-the-air descriptions of how to shoot to kill federal agents who might storm through the door, guns blazing; on the anti-abortion activists who support the "taking of all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life including the use of force"; on publications like Soldier of Fortune magazine, which warned in its April issue--ominously on target with the Oklahoma bombing as it turned out--that "in 1994 America resorted to the ballot box for change. Hopefully the cartridge box will not be necessary."

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