Bryan Burrough’s “Days of Rage” chronicles an era when leftist American students used bombs and other forms of violence in an attempt to convert the working class to their cause.
‘Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence’
by Bryan Burrough
Penguin Press, 585 pp., $29.95
Terrorism today conjures images of Islamic militants horrifically crashing planes into buildings, detonating bombs on crowded subway trains or exploding devices specifically designed to kill or maim large numbers of people. But not so long ago, as the 1960s wound to a close, the idea of “revolutionary violence” was embraced not by religious zealots, but by left-wing radicals, certain they were on the vanguard of the coming revolution.
In “Days of Rage,” Bryan Burrough, author of “Public Enemies,” provides a fascinating look at an almost forgotten era of homegrown terrorism. Groups like the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) routinely bombed post offices, military installations, and corporate facilities in a wildly naive and self-indulgent effort to lead the “oppressed” American working class to revolt. “Days of Rage” relies not only on historical research, but on interviews with some of the principal activists, living in obscurity but still defiant about their underground activity. The book is utterly captivating, coupling careful historical research with breathless accounts of the bombings and the perpetrators’ narrow escapes.
The sheer numbers are astounding. During one 18-month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2,500 bombings, nearly five a day. Yet, as Burrough’s notes, “less than 1 percent of the 1970s-era bombings lead to a fatality; the single deadliest radical-underground attack of the decade killed four people.” Most of the bombs were placed in restrooms and were followed by ornate “communiqués,” filled with Marxist jargon.
This was not an anti-war protest movement. The underground radicals were, instead, committed to righting what they perceived as wrongs in American society and fighting back against racism and police brutality.
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Bernadine Dohrn, the stunningly beautiful and promiscuous leader of the Weather Underground, who J. Edgar Hoover called “La Pasionaria of the Lunatic Left,” famously celebrated Charles Manson’s horrific murder of Sharon Tate in 1969. The SLA grabbed attention by kidnapping 19-year old Patty Hearst in 1974. Neither action led to a tide of sympathy or support. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, the country had moved on, embracing much of the hippie culture, music and style — but emphatically rejecting its violent rhetoric.
The FBI, pushed hard by the Nixon administration, formed “Squad 47” to investigate. The squad conducted widespread “black bag jobs,” opening mail, breaking into homes, and installing thousands of wiretaps — with full knowledge that what they were doing was patently illegal.
When the FBI’s abuses came to light, only three individuals were indicted: Acting Director L. Patrick Gray, Acting Associate Director Mark Felt and Assistant Director Ed Miller. Felt and Miller were both convicted. Felt was fined $5,000, Miller was fined $2,500 and both were quickly pardoned by incoming President Reagan. (Felt, it was revealed years later, was the “Deep Throat” source for The Washington Post reporters breaking the Watergate scandal).
Within weeks, Dohrn turned herself in. At one time the most wanted fugitive in the underground, she was fined a mere $1,500. The Weather Underground had conducted hundreds of bombings but the only individuals convicted were the FBI agents — not the leadership of the organization.
When Ray Levasseur, one of the last violent bombers, was finally arrested in 1984, the world had so completely changed that, as Burrough’s notes, he was the “radical equivalent of the aging Japanese infantrymen found in Pacific caves well into the 1970s, men still fighting a war everyone else knew only from history books.”