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Saturday, September 18, 2021

September 18-19, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: 9/11 and 1/6

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in this weekend post, after a week spent AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

On what distinguishes and what connects two 21st century terrorist attacks.

First of all, I need to open this post by being very clear that I’m not seeking to minimize in any way the horrors and tragedies, nor indeed any of the realities, of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Not by thinking about them in relationship to domestic terrorism (that is, I’m not even vaguely gesturing at Trutherism or any other such bullshit), and not in any other way either. I certainly agree with this 2012 Kevin Levin article that over time it is important to step back from the most personal and emotional forms of commemoration and to remember even the most tragic events (like the Civil War in his article, or like Pearl Harbor in this prior post of mine) with more nuance and thoughtfulness, and that’s a big part of what I hope to do in this post. But doing so does not require minimizing the tragedies, not for any of those thousands of lives and families and communities affected by the attacks, and not for any and all of the rest of us. Full stop.

So with all that said, the first couple decades of the 21st century have been bookended by two terrorist attacks on the heart of American society and community: the 9/11 attacks (which of course included not just the most famous Manhattan planes but also attacks aimed at the Pentagon and another DC site, either the White House or Capitol); and then this past January’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It’s easy, and important, to differentiate those two attacks in all sorts of ways, not only their drastically different casualty numbers (an important distinction to be sure) but also the very significant difference of the role of an international terrorist organization in planning and orchestrating 9/11. While the U.S. had a complicated but undeniable role in the creation of Al Qaeda, as I wrote about at length in this post (and as could be said of most every international entity of the last century), that doesn’t change the fact that it was a foreign organization, committing what has to be described as an overt act of war against the United States. (Which doesn’t make our military responses to the attacks, nor the broader framework of the “War on Terror” that we have found so hard to leave behind, any smarter or more successful, necessarily; but which is an important context nonetheless.)

But at the same time, I think there is significant value in linking both of these attacks under the umbrella of terrorist attacks on American soil. After all, both of them targeted American political and social institutions with the overt goal of changing the nation’s politics and policies; if anything, the January 6th insurrection did so even more fully, since it targeted an ongoing political action (the authentication of the 2020 presidential election) and sought to disrupt and reverse that Constitutional event through violence. Which is to say, the concept of domestic terrorism isn’t, to my mind, just about who’s committing the actions, although that’s certainly part of it (and doesn’t make the 1/6 attacks look any better, to be sure). It’s also, and equally importantly, about how terrorist attacks can strike at the heart of a nation, at some of its core communities and institutions, at its shared identity and ideals. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it’s worth considering how the 21st century has been dominated by such terrorisms here in the United States, and thinking about what links the far-right movements behind them (at least as much as what differentiates them).

Next series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think?

Friday, September 17, 2021

September 17, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: Cultural Representations

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

On three cultural texts that reflect three different visions of domestic terrorists (some SPOILERS in what follows).

1)      The Dark Knight Rises (2012): The villains in many action films (or at least their sinister plans) could be described as domestic terrorists, but that’s never been more accurate than it is for Tom Hardy’s Bane in the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Bane doesn’t just start his culminating attacks on Gotham City with a series of domestic terrorist bombings; he also weds those attacks to an anarchist philosophy that makes clear that he sees himself as a terrorist in the most overtly political senses of the term. While Hardy’s talents, combined with the usual depiction of Gotham as a deeply troubled place in need of serious reform, make his perspective (if not his famously muffled voice) at least somewhat understandable, he is still clearly a villain—and, we eventually learn, one whose domestic terrorist acts are actually undertaken for the benefit of a greater villain who cares nothing for his philosophies. This is what we might call the 21st century comic book film vision of domestic terrorism: somewhat thoughtful and purposeful, but ultimately villainous and in need of heroic opposition.

2)      Fight Club (1999): David Fincher’s film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel features many twists and turns (most of which I’ll try not to spoil here for the few who don’t yet know them), but its culmination is an elaborate, highly orchestrated act of interconnected, domestic terrorist bombings against the city in which its characters reside. Like everything else in the film, and doubly so given the stunning revelations about those protagonists that have immediately preceded it, that set piece is ambiguous in tone—but in my reading, there’s no question that we are meant to watch and appreciate the bombings more as a beautiful crescendo (as our hero and heroine do) than as a disturbing or villainous act of destruction and mass murder. At the end of the day, Fight Club is the story of a boring, constrained everyman in desperate need of shaking free from those shackles—and those bombings, like the character of Tyler Durden who orchestrates them, represent the potent culmination of his successful escape. That’s a heroic, or at the very least an entirely sympathetic, vision of domestic terrorism.

3)      American Pastoral (1997): As I hope this week’s series has made clear, somewhere in the shades of gray between villainous and heroic lie most of the acts of domestic terrorism in our nation’s history: sometimes more toward the villainous side (such as Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing), sometimes a bit more toward the heroic (as with the environmental terrorists I highlighted yesterday), but always part of the fraught and contingent realities of political, social, individual, and cultural contexts. As I trace in that hyperlinked blog post above, few literary works engage those complex contexts with more depth and power than Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, a novel with a Weather Underground-like domestic terrorist bombing at the center of its multi-layered narration, structure, chronology, plot, family, and depiction of 20th century American history. As I wrote in this post, I agree with the critiques of Roth around themes of gender (among others); but at his best, he’s one of our greats, and American Pastoral is his best novel and one of our best cultural representations of domestic terrorism.

Special post this weekend,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?

Thursday, September 16, 2021

September 16, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: Edward Abbey and Environmental Terrorism

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

On three distinct and even contrasting ways to contribute to environmental activism.

Edward Abbey is perhaps best known for his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which depicts a group of heroic anarchists and environmental terrorists using every means at their disposal (including, if not especially, criminal ones) to fight for the environment against corporate and governmental forces. Abbey’s book directly inspired the eco-terrorist (or eco-revolutionary, depending on who you ask) organization Earth First!, which was founded in 1980 and the members of which frequently referred to (and still to this day call) their acts of eco-sabotage as “monkeywrenching.” While Abbey did not become an official member of Earth First!, he did both write for them and take direct action with them on occasion, and thus seems to have been more than fine with his fictional ideas being turned into radical activism in this way. As with other radical leftist groups such as the Weathermen, it’s important to try to maintain a sense of the line between inspiring activism and destructive terrorism; but it’s also important not to let any one perspective, and certainly not a corporate or authoritative one, be the sole arbiter of that spectrum. And to read Abbey’s book is to recognize the complexity of such issues when it comes to environmental extremism.

Abbey published more than twenty books in his three-plus decade long writing career, however, and thus engaged with environmental issues in far more varied ways than that one most famous novel would indicate. For example, his first non-fiction book, 1968’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, presents a far more individual and reflective form of environmental advocacy and activism. An autobiographical account of Abbey’s time spent living alone in Southeastern Utah’s spectacular Arches National Park (he lived there from 1956-1957 as a backcountry park ranger), Desert Solitaire is in many ways a 20th century Walden, equal parts memoir and personal reflection, environmental and scientific journal, and social and philosophical commentary. As did Thoreau, Abbey offers his personal experiences and perspective as a model for his readers and all of us, suggesting the intense and important value of this kind of isolated immersion in the natural world. At the height of 1960s social and political debates, such a book and project might seem like a retreat or at least a separation from those shared concerns, but I believe Desert Solitaire is better seen as a complement to them, an argument for how and why environmental activism should be part of that broader spectrum of social change (if a form that perhaps does at times require more individual and, yes, solitary pursuits).

As that year in Arches National Park reflects, Abbey also worked for a number of years, particularly in the early part of his writing career, as a park ranger. He did so not only there but at many other parks and sites in the late 1950s and 1960s: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (in Arizona near the Mexican border); the Everglades in Florida; and Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California among others. These efforts partly embodied Desert Solitaire’s ethos of individuals immersing themselves in natural worlds, of the advice Abbey gave in a September 1976 speech to environmental activists: “It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it's still here.” But I would argue that working as a park ranger also represents a contribution to communal experiences of nature and the environment as well as a form of fighting for the land that differs from eco-terrorism. That is, I think Abbey’s service as a ranger represents a third form of environmental activism, one that recognizes that we’re all in it together and seeks to defend the environment in more positive ways. There’s a place for all these forms in our conversations and efforts, but as a devotee of our National Park system, I’m especially inspired by this third form.

Last domestic terrorists tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

September 15, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: McVeigh and Militias

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

On how to see the Oklahoma City domestic terrorist as a lone wolf, and why not to.

In many ways, Timothy McVeigh’s story and identity would seem to echo those of many other “lone wolf” killers and domestic terrorists. Like Lee Harvey Oswald and others, McVeigh was a military veteran who came unhinged and turned elements of that martial training (and a lifelong obsession with weapons and war) to an act of domestic terror. And like so many of our current crop of mass shooters, McVeigh was a youthful loner with a passion for computers (in his case, specifically for computer programming and hacking) who would eventually find an outlet and encouragement in technological and virtual spaces for his radical perspectives and ideas. Seeing McVeigh as a lone wolf not only seems to fit those and other aspects of his profile, but also in a broader sense helps us see any public shooting (from the assassination of a specific individual to a mass shooting of random people) as at least potentially an act of domestic terrorism. It also reminds us of one of war’s most destructive effects, the further radicalization and destabilization of individuals like McVeigh (who bragged in a documentary about decapitating an Iraqi soldier during the Gulf War).

But there are significant, telling problems with thinking about McVeigh as a lone wolf, or really as an individual actor in any meaningful sense. I don’t just mean the danger of our forgetting how much he was inspired by a prior incident, the 1993 standoff in Waco (TX) between Branch Davidian cult members and federal authorities; although McVeigh did see his domestic terrorist bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City so fully as a response to those earlier histories (which he had partially witnessed, as he traveled to Waco in support of the cult members) that he committed his horrific crime on the two-year anniversary of the Waco standoff’s April 19th concluding events. That’s all true and important to remember, but it’s still fair to say that an individual shooter or terrorist can be inspired by prior events (indeed, almost inevitably is in one way or another) and still ultimately act as individually, as what we might call a “lone wolf.” Nor is McVeigh working with co-conspirators (Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier, both convicted for their roles in planning the bombing) sufficient, as shooters like the Columbine high schoolers can work together and still act as “lone wolves.”

No, I’m thinking instead about the ways that both McVeigh’s perspective and his terrorism paralleled and were linked to broader, hugely influential trends throughout the 1990s. As part of a conspiracy theories series a few years back, I wrote this post on the 90s fears of “black helicopters,” and how those conspiratorial narratives of international threats and takeovers foreshadowed many aspects of our current moment and society. I think it’s fair to say that those legacies have become even clearer in the years since that series, and indeed that in many ways Donald Trump was (if he was any kind of leader at all) the Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief. The driving force behind those 90s conspiracy theories was the rise of right-wing “militias,” groups of well-armed, white supremacist fanatics who saw themselves as “Patriots” (their most consistent self-identification) already and perhaps always at war with enemies both federal and global. From what I’ve seen, McVeigh did not belong to any of those militias, and I’m not trying to imply any direct association. But the fundamental fact is that his narratives of the U.S. government as an enemy to be opposed with military weapons and tactics (he later admitted that sniper-style shootings would have been even more ideal than a bombing) jibed quite closely with militia perspectives—and with those of mass shooters and domestic terrorists in the 2020s as well.

Next domestic terrorists tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

September 14, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: The Weathermen

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

[NB. This post originally appeared on the blog in the fall of 2019, which is why some of the dates are out of whack. But it’s too relevant to this week’s series not to include here.]

On the difficulty, and the importance, of writing about domestic terrorists with whom we agree.

I apologize for getting into serious inside baseball territory with the opening of this post, but I think it helps me introduce the central point I want to consider here. I’ve been writing this daily blog for nearly nine years now, and for much of that time I’ve been scheduling posts (and then weekly series when I shifted to that format) quite a while in advance. But I’m drafting this post only one week out, on Tuesday October 1st, which I believe is the closest I’ve gotten to running out of scheduled posts in at least the last six years. And the reason isn’t just that I’ve been enjoying a sabbatical full of lots of time with my sons and the first book talks of a schedule full of them, although both those things are true and very nice indeed (I’ll have more to say about those ongoing talks in next week’s series). Nor is it that the absolutely insane news of the last couple weeks has distracted me and made it difficult to write, although that is unquestionably true and not nearly so nice (if long overdue and entirely warranted, as my recent blog post on threats to the Constitution made clear).

No, my delay in working on this post (it was at least three weeks between scheduling yesterday’s and finally starting to write today’s, to add one additional, telling inside blogging detail into the mix) has a lot to do with a fraught pair of interconnected facts: my perspective closely aligns with many of the positions held and advocated by the leftists who formed the Weather Underground; and yet it’s impossible to describe many of that group’s activities as anything other than domestic terrorism. That’s true of a good deal of what transpired in the course of the four days of 1969 protests, although those acts of vandalism and destruction could possibly be seen as aftereffects (or at least side effects) of the 1969 activities, rather than central elements of them. But as the Weathermen continued to develop as an organization over the subsequent eight years, they turned their attention more and more fully to overt acts of domestic terrorism, such as the May 1970 bombing of the National Guard Association building in Washington, DC, the June 1970 bombing of the New York City police headquarters, and the March 1971 bombing of the US Capitol building, among many other attacks. One can argue that many of their bombings were designed to avoid injuring people, but they often did so nonetheless, and in any case bombings of domestic targets are acts of domestic terrorism, full stop.

I don’t have any difficulty naming them as such, but in writing about the Weather Underground I do find myself in a somewhat similar predicament to the one I addressed in this post on Nat Turner’s slave revolt: the need to critique an act of domestic terrorism while recognizing that it served a cause with which I agree. I don’t mean in any way to critique histories like those of the Vietnam War and the military industrial complex and the Nixon Administration (all targets of the Weather Underground’s political protests and violence) with those of slavery; even the horrific Kent State shootings, which prompted the May 1970 National Guard building bombing, shouldn’t be equated to the horrors of slavery. But nevertheless, just as Turner and his fellow rebels committed their acts of violent terrorism in opposition to systemic wrongs and abuses, so too did the Weathermen oppose many systems and histories that I likewise would critique and hope to dismantle. Which means I have to condemn their acts of domestic terrorism (which I do) while at the same time recognizing the legitimacy of their perspective, a difficult balance which, among other things, can lead to some serious writer’s block.

Next domestic terrorists tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?

Monday, September 13, 2021

September 13, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: The KKK

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

On two under-remembered stages to the early histories of our oldest domestic terrorist organization.

I could probably focus the first paragraph of every post on this blog on the books, articles, and work of other scholars that have informed my own thinking about that particular subject. I generally try at least to highlight them through hyperlinks, but sometimes I know the scholars in question themselves as well as their work, and know that they are equally awesome. In that case, and especially when they are women (whose work, as has been illustrated too often in recent years, is often particularly under-cited), I will try to dedicate some blog space to sharing those scholarly texts. So: if you want to learn about the Ku Klux Klan’s Reconstruction origins, check out Elaine Frantz Parsons’s Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (2015); and if you want to follow the Klan’s evolution into the early 20th century, check out Kelly J. Baker’s Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011). Both those books expand greatly and in more far depth and analytical nuance on the histories and ideas about which I’ll write briefly in this post; for those in my last paragraph in particular, I also greatly look forward to Cynthia Lynn Lyerly’s forthcoming Thomas Dixon, Jr.: Apostle of Hate.

One of the histories that Parsons’s book helps us remember is just how contested and controversial the Klan was in its early years. As Parsons traced in this 2014 We’re History post (which was a partial excerpt from and certainly foreshadowed her book), in the late 1860s and early 1870s the Grant Administration and federal government conducted a series of investigations into the Klan, leading to famous Congressional hearings among many other political and legal responses. I can’t agree (and I don’t think Parsons would either, per the end of that We’re History piece) with Grant biographer Ron Chernow, however, when he writes that Grant and these federal inquiries helped destroy the Reconstruction-era Klan; as Parson notes, even those Klan members convicted of crimes as a result of these new laws were generally pardoned by Grant after the 1872 election. So better remembering these Reconstruction debates not only helps us recognize the conflicts over the Klan, but also offers a frustrating glimpse into how that domestic terrorist organization and its violent activities were normalized, even (perhaps especially) in precisely the same moments when it was being treated as the criminal enterprise it always was (and remains to this day).

As I argued in my own We’re History piece on the subject, and as Baker’s book details and (I’m quite sure) Lyerly’s book will as well, popular culture comprised one central vehicle through which that normalization of the Klan took place. One of the first such cultural normalizations was created as a direct response to the Congressional hearings themselves: Mississippi lawyer and white supremacist James D. Lynch’s epic poem Redpath, or, the Ku Klux Tribunal (1877), which depicts a fictional Northern political aide who journeys to the South to investigate the Klan and ends up converting to its cause based on what he finds there. Texts like Lynch’s poem helped create the conditions in which Thomas Dixon’s Klan trilogy could become bestselling “historical” novels, in which the film adaptation of those novels The Birth of a Nation could become one of the most influential American movies of all time, and in which Gone with the Wind (written by a woman, Margaret Mitchell, who would respond to Dixon’s praise of the novel by telling him that she was “practically raised on” his books) remains one of the most successful American novels. All those texts, most released during the years (1872-1915) when the KKK was officially not active, remind us that even a domestic terrorist mainstay like the Klan is not a given, that its arc and influence were constructed over time, and can, crucially, be engaged, challenged, and destroyed in our own era.

Next domestic terrorists tomorrow,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?

Saturday, September 11, 2021

September 11-12, 2021: Tanya Roth’s Guest Post on “The Real Miss America”

[Tanya Roth is a writer, historian, and high school educator with whom I’ve been very fortunate to connect through the #twitterstorians community over the last few months. This Guest Post is an excerpt from her forthcoming book Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980, which is due out September 30th!]


[Ad from the National Archives, Record Group 330, stored in a Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) member's folder.]

Excerpt from Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980 by Tanya L. Roth

 

Chapter 2: The Real Miss America: Recruiting Womanpower 

 

Four years after the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed, someone in recruiting decided that the first all-out campaign for womanpower should take place with the 1952 Miss America pageant. It must have seemed like the perfect pairing: the pageant highlighted the best young American women from around the nation, perfectly poised, beautiful, talented, and educated. Recruiters dreamed of signing just these types of young ladies for service in the armed forces. Military publicity officers secured a presence for servicewomen throughout the pageant, ensuring visibility whenever possible. The goal was simple: get Americans to associate servicewomen with the excellent reputation Miss America contestants had at that time and to impart a sense of glamour into Americans’ ideas of women in uniform...

From the beginning...concerns about appearances framed woman power recruiting efforts. Recruiters followed the philosophy that familiarity and femininity would be the most practical and effective ways to entice women to military careers. Military service became advertised as an avenue by which women could become not just ideal American women, but respectable ladies. This approach helped make women’s service acceptable to Americans both inside and outside the armed forces. If military service— especially in wartime—could transform boys into men, then military service could also turn girls into proper ladies. Women belonged in national defense in part because military and government officials saw them as partners in service with men, doing things women did best and capitalizing on their identities as women to do so. In these regards, staging the women’s recruiting drive in conjunction with the 1952 Miss America pageant made sense. The pageant was about thirty years old, and community service was— and still is—an important element of holding the title “Miss America.”  During World War II, the crowned Miss Americas all performed war service activities such as visiting troops and selling war bonds, their version  of supporting national defense.5 Scholar Mary Anne Schofield argues that  during wartime, such efforts “supported the propaganda machine that said  that femininity and war work went together.” In the process, the pageant itself solidified the image of Miss America as “the ideal American woman.” By 1952, if military leaders wanted a venue that would showcase servicewomen as the very best of American womanhood and service, the Miss America pageant was the place to be.

[9/11 series starts Monday,

Ben

PS. What do you think? Other pageant histories, stories, or contexts you’d share?]