In 1970, when I was 22 years old ? the same age as Tucson gunman Jared Loughner ? I was a founder of the Weather Underground, an offshoot of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society. At that time, having fashioned myself “an agent of necessity,” I was willing to kill or be killed for some romantic notion of “the revolution.” So it’s not that difficult for me to imagine what might have been in the mind of someone like Loughner, who perhaps acted (as I did) in the misguided belief that it was up to him to do what needed to be done.
By the winter of 1970, the members of the Weather Underground had gone over the edge. A small group of us in New York City, charged with “taking the struggle to a higher level,” was planning a bombing at Fort Dix, New Jersey, which was then an army basic training center. Three pipe bombs filled with dynamite and larded with nails were to be left at a noncommissioned officers’ dance to remind our fellow Americans of the millions of tons of bombs our country had been dropping on the Vietnamese for five straight years.
I wasn’t in the group making the bombs, but I knew what was being planned and ? to my eternal shame ? didn’t try to stop it. For a nice Jewish boy from New Jersey, this was a very strange place to be. In retrospect, my friends and I had thought ourselves into a corner.
We were heartbroken and despairing over the fact that the war in Vietnam had dragged on despite massive public opposition and protest. Our country was murdering millions of people. As students, budding intellectuals even, we had studied the origins of the war and the nature of power in this country. We were keenly aware of the violent revolt of the Third World against U.S. control, in Cuba, China, Vietnam, and in the ghettos and barrios of this country, and were convinced that the American system of global domination ? we still called it “imperialism” then ? was coming to an end.
What to do? As white people, we could have just stood aside, but that would have been like the Germans acquiescing to the Nazi concentration camps. To not be willing to share the risks non-white people were taking, to stand safely on the sidelines applauding, would only be evidence of our unearned privilege. The time for action was here: indeed, hadn’t the Black Panthers taught us to chant at demonstrations, ‘The revolution has come/ Time to pick up the gun’?
So we were the self-appointed elect. It was up to us to act because no one else seemed to understand the depths of the atrocities being committed by our government or had the courage to act against them. All Americans were legitimate targets, too, we thought, because in their inaction or ignorance they were complicit with the war crimes.
Fatefully, the bombs that were being assembled in the basement of that townhouse on West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, on the morning of March 6, 1970, went off prematurely. Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins ? brilliant young people filled with a passion for justice ? inadvertently sacrificed themselves in order to avoid an even worse tragedy had the bombs made it to their intended target that night.
The remnants of the Weather Underground eventually regrouped and issued a statement that we would not ever target people, taking precaution to only bomb symbolic targets such as buildings. We had gone up to the edge of the precipice, looked over, and pulled back to an extent. Over the next years, as President Nixon escalated the war against Vietnam, the Weather Underground went on to place small bombs in the Pentagon, the Capitol building, and about two dozen such targets, always phoning in warnings. I still thank God that no one was ever killed.
Meanwhile, emotionally shattered, I dropped out of the organization by the end of that year but remained a fugitive until well after the war ended, when I turned myself in to the authorities. I spent the next quarter century trying to figure out why I had made so many disastrous decisions as a very young man.
I believe that it had something to do with an exaggerated sense of my own specialness and importance. It had something to do with wanting to prove myself as a man, a motive exploited by all armies and other terror groups in all eras. It had something to do with my yearning to be a true revolutionary, like my “guerillero heroico,” Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.
In the end, though, it all came around to my believing in the absolute necessity of violence based on terrible moral grievances. Over the years, I haven’t forgotten those grievances ? my country continues to wage needless wars, and this society is no more structurally just ? but I’ve completely rejected violence as a solution, for a myriad of reasons not the least being moral, but also including efficacy. Simply put, violence doesn’t work.
In theory, a small amount of violence might be moral to stop a larger violence. In practice in the U.S., violence only isolates the revolutionaries and gives a great big fat gift to the government: they can call us terrorists. I’ve become an advocate of nonviolent strategy because it’s been proven so effective in the 20th century ? it is a truly ‘zen’ answer to the militarism of the U.S.
In addition to the pragmatic advantages of nonviolence, it also has certain moral and even spiritual advantages. I once heard the Dalai Lama answer the question of why he doesn’t hate the Chinese, despite what they’ve done to his country. He said, “They’re our neighbors, and when this is all over, we’ll have to live with them.”
Right now, the rightwing in America has a profound sense of moral grievance. The country has lost its way, but instead of looking deeply at the nature of power ? at the banks and pharmaceutical corporations and military contractors and media conglomerates that have looted our economy through their control of the government the last thirty-plus years ? they’ve created a simplistic culprit, encapsulated in the absurd notion that “government is bad, unless we’re running it.” For many in this camp, there seems to be no sense of a social contract.
To a not insignificant faction, Representative Gabrielle Giffords was a symbol of “the enemy” and previously had been “targeted” as such, so it’s not entirely surprising that an unhinged young man would arm himself with an easily-obtained automatic weapon and do what (he likely thought) needed to be done. Collateral damage, such as murdering six people and wounding a dozen more, has to be accepted in war ? at least according to way it is still waged.
As the Weather Underground believed in the absolute necessity of bombs to address actual moral grievances such as the Vietnam War and racism, Loughner might have believed in the absolute necessity of a Glock to answer his imagined moral grievances. Violent actors in this country ? whether James Earl Ray, Timothy McVeigh, or Scott Roeder, who in 2009 killed a Kansas abortion provider ? are always armed not just with weapons, but with the conviction that their grievances demand satisfaction and their violence is righteous.
But the shooting of Giffords, Judge John Roll, Christina Taylor Green, and the other victims in that Tucson parking lot was not a means to anything. It was an end in itself. The gunman’s goal was quite likely existential ? an individual committing a horrific act for its own sake.
I doubt that Loughner, sitting in a Tucson jail, gives these matters much thought. I doubt that he cares much about who won the 2010 midterms or who will win the presidency in 2012. I doubt that a man who seems so confused and desperate cares much about ideology. Sarah Palin and her cross-hairs map deserve nothing but ignominy, but Loughner probably didn’t worry that liberals would blame conservatives for the shooting or that conservatives would take umbrage at every media accusation. If he’s a political actor, he probably doesn’t know it.
After I turned myself in, in 1977, I spent the next 25 years trying to understand what had gone so horribly wrong. One of my most profound conclusions was to make a commitment to pursue only nonviolent action ? righteous action still, but without anger or brutality.
Like me, Loughner ? though he’s the product of a different era and may have been motivated only by his madness ? could have a long time to consider the logic behind his alleged actions. I only hope that he and those families that were destroyed can find peace.
This essay was originally published by New Clear Vision.