Echoes of the Townhouse Explosion

“The whole townhouse rose up a foot or two, shattering bricks and splintering wooden beams, and then was transformed into dust and rubble, shuddering in a deep pit in which a ruptured gas main burst into flame.”

–from Flying Close to the Sun, by Cathy Wilkerson

It remains one of the iconic images of the 1960s, at the vortex of the maelstrom of upheavals that marked the transformation of antiwar and civil rights protests into something more sinister.

On March 6, 1970, a bomb was accidentally detonated in the basement of a townhouse on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Three people died – Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold – and two survived – Cathy Wilkerson, whose father owned the house, and Kathy Boudin. All were members of the Weatherman organization, which had recently split with SDS.

Wilkerson was upstairs, ironing, trying to put the house back in order before her father returned from a trip abroad, when the bomb exploded. She vividly describes that moment in her memoir, Flying Close to the Sun:

… I was bearing down on the wrinkles on the white sheet covering the ironing board when a shock wave shot through the house. A loud rumble followed, growing in intensity. Under the thin burnt orange carpeting, my bare feet felt the old, wood floor vibrating with escalating intensity…. I began to sink down, my feet still planted on the thin carpet as it stretched and slid across widening, disjointed gaps.

Wilkerson and Boudin escaped as dust and chaos engulfed them and more explosions followed, and then they disappeared into the underground, finally going separate ways, not to be heard from again until years later.

Romanticizing this event is as inappropriate as dismissing it as a tragic case of criminal mischief. The confluence of ideals and misguided zealotry that led to this moment are impossible to separate from the political atmosphere of the time. Absent the destructive course charted by the administration, which by 1970 the majority of American wanted to change, it’s difficult to imagine how the Weatherman organization could have evolved to this point, or come to exist at all.

Wilkerson writes of the “degenerative zealotry” that resulted in this tragedy.

In his memoir, Fugitive Days, Bill Ayers, one of Weatherman’s leaders and the lover of Diana Oughton, similarly recalls the fugue of extremism of that time:

Ideology became an appealing alternative in so many ways … ideology soaked itself in confidence. I didn’t know yet how domesticating and cruel and stupid ideology could become, or the inevitable dependency it would foster in all of us.

With the townhouse explosion, the reality of “bringing the war home” took on a new dimension, which subsequently calcified within Weatherman in a renewed determination, and some would argue, greater discipline. Weatherman was responsible for about a dozen of the 5,000 or more bombings that took place over the next year and half.

Bernadine Dohrn, another of Weatherman’s leaders, described how she perceived the organization’s subsequent actions in a 1995 interview:

They involved property and were not meant to harm anybody. They were symbolic and done so that everyone would instantly recognize what was being said. It was ‘armed propaganda.’ Sure, it was violent, and it’s hard to justify twenty years later, but it was extremely restrained and a highly appropriate response to the level of violence being rained nationally and internationally.

Ayers offers further context, describing a different kind of terrorism, often neglected even in discussions of American casualties during the Vietnam War:

Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a body and a spirit….Bodies torn apart, blown away, smudged out, lost forever. Their names obliterated.

Carl Oglesby, a former SDS president and friend to many in the Weather Underground, though no particular sympathizer to their tactics, calls the Watergate scandal a “miracle,” for one is only left to wonder how much worse things might have gotten if the Nixon administration hadn’t tripped over its own lies.

Endless war. A recalcitrant and corrupt administration refusing to change course – despite the will of the people and growing evidence against any prospect of success in its foreign military intervention. The government treating political dissent as if it were treason and mounting counter-intelligence actions against its own citizens.

It all sounds too familiar.

The legacy of the townhouse explosion may be that it is a cautionary tale of the consequences of unchecked power. However misguided the intentions and tactics of the the war’s most extreme opponents may have been, their opposition to the war and to the injustices of civil rights still put them squarely on the right side of history.

BOB SOMMER’s novel, Where the Wind Blew, which tells the story how the past eventually caught up with one former member of a 60s radical group, was released in June 2008 by The Wessex Collective. He blogs at Uncommon Hours.