zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Off-Base


Dr.David Ucko at the excellent Kings of War blog has his story and he is sticking to it:

The Weather Underground: a different approach to political violence

I recently watched The Weather Underground, a 2002 documentary on the eponymous radical organisation active within the United States during the 1970s. The film may be of interest to those studying radicalisation, insurgency and political violence, as it effectively explores the rise, evolution and demise of a revolutionary organisation. It also raises some semantic/ethical questions about ‘who is a terrorist’.

….The use of violence for political messaging may be viewed as ‘terrorism’, and this is typically how the Weather Underground is understood. But is this accurate? Terrorist groups deliberately target civilians to scare or terrorise wider populations into a certain political behaviour. The WUO refrained from such action: they used violence against buildings rather than people, to symbolise their discontent with specific policies and actions, but without killing those held responsible. It was ‘propaganda of the deed’, but without the bloodshed. Accordingly, none of WUO’s attacks resulted in casualties (the one exception has not been definitively linked to the group), and for this reason alone, it is difficult to call WUO a ‘terrorist’ organisation.

Uh, no it isn’t. As the commenters at KoW are busy trying to inform Ucko, this narrative does not fit the facts of the history of the Weathermen.

David, I suspect, is not trying to romanticize the Weathermen here so much as force-fit them into his theoretical model of terrorism, possibly influenced by a tactical turn that was undertaken by the IRA to drive up financial costs for the British government while minimizing the bad press that and damage to their public image that had been growing from earlier, bloody, IRA bombings.

10 Responses to “Off-Base”

  1. Norm Says:

    Besides their own members, and a lot of windows, one toilet, and a few other property structures, who is it that the Weather Underground killed?

  2. David Ucko Says:

    We can argue about the definition of ‘terrorism’ and whether it should include attacks that do not cause any casualties. That’s fine. But when you say my facts are wrong, or that my analysis ‘doesn’t fit the facts’, what are you talking about specifically?

    Maybe I wasn’t specific enough in my post, but as clarified in the comments (which you appear to have read) I am refering to the period post-Greenwich village explosion to the demise of organisation. Zero casualties as far as I can see. How are those facts wrong?

  3. zen Says:

    Hi David,
    As was pointed out at KoW, members of the Weathermen blew themselves up while making bombs intended to kill ppl at a dance and there are the dead security guards from the robberies. You disputed the latter by saying that at the time they were former members. To me, that is a semantic avoidance of the violent nature of the group by drawing some artificial distinctions so that you can categorize them as non-violent. Inept terrorism is still terrorism.

  4. David Ucko Says:

    But they weren’t acting in the name of the group? Doesn’t that make all the difference? Otherwise, we might as well say that the Weathermen were all ‘elementary education theorists’, because that’s what William Ayers, co-founder of WUO, did when he left the group…
    As to the ‘own goal’, the shift that interested me, the ‘strategic shift in the use of force’, as I called it in the post, occurred after this incident. I should have made that clearer but made the point in the comments.
    Are you saying that to judge a group that was active for ca. 14 years on only 12 of those years is artificial? Seems like a fairly tendencious line to draw.

  5. Lexington Green Says:

    The Weathermen only failed to kill people out of ineptitude, not a lack of malice.

  6. zen Says:

    "But they weren’t acting in the name of the group? Doesn’t that make all the difference?’
    That depends if you believe their motive to have been personal, for financial gain, or if the robberies were being done for political purposes. I see them as a social network of leftist radicals that have continuity, regardless of the labels they were attaching to themselves (which changed over time).
    Was Stalin an independent actor looking to get rich when he was robbing banks with Kamo in Transcaucasia or was he expropriating funds for the revolutionary cause, despite the disapproval of a majority of the Russian Social-Democratic Party and even some Bolsheviks? Or are the bank robberies part of a historical context that stretches for decades?
    Are the Weathermen the equivalent of the Shining Path or the IRA? No. But I think the relatively few dead and injured from their antics was partly a matter of luck and the particular speed of their political radicalization as much as a determined intent to scrupulously avoid all violence.
    Incidentally, I think in theory, you’re right that a group could use such tactics to their advantage and get a huge ROI in both monetary terms ( money expended for damage caused) and a political edge over the state.

  7. Purpleslog Says:

    Also…don’t forget the 25million or so Americans WU thought they would have to kill in "re?education centers" once the revolution was successful.


  8. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Said neglected American strategic theorist J. C. Wylie in his 1989 postscript to his 1967 classic Military Strategy: The best definition of the the aim of terrorism that I have found [is]  “…the capture and control of the processes of social change.” [N]ote: “that not one military word is used in this definition [is]…significant because it establishes the distinction between a conventional military approach and the revolutionary approach of an insurgent enemy.”…In their war against society, their aim is “some selected degree of control [of the processes of social change] for…[their] own purpose.” They seek to achieve this “by control of the pattern” of their war against society. And they do this by creating and manipulating a “center of gravity” (a person or an installation that will ensure public attention) which they have selected “to the advantage of the strategist and the disadvantage of the opponent“, the opponent being the organized society over which they want to exercise control. Their pattern of operation is to control “the nature and the placement and the timing and the weight of the center of gravity” that they have chosen “toward [their] own ends“—the control of the processes of social change. They select their targets for the greatest impact on that society. Viewedin this context, the murder of Lord Mountbatten and the often indiscriminate bombings in Belfast make a weird and repugnant sort of sense. So do the kidnappings in Beirut, the murder of Aldo Moro, the aborted piracy of the Achille Lauro, and the threats or the facts of bombing this or that public (and usually governmental) building. Odd how the root word of terrorism is "terror". Not "murder-death-killism", terror. The strategy of these dirty hippies was to create terror as a mechanism of acquiring control over the general public in pursuit of their purpose. The essence of these dirty hippie’s ideology is the abolition of private property. The essence of American ideology, derived from English precursors, is the protection of private property. In threatening property and the people in its vicinity with random acts of terror, the WU was well within the bounds of political violence, which is not restricted to people but also extends to their things. Private property is tightly bound to the identity of the American, where a man’s house is his castle. Well said Machiavelli: "Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. "

  9. joey Says:

    ”dirty hippies” ??Leave the hippies out of this square!

  10. democratic core Says:

    LG is right.  They were terrorists who just didn’t get past the Darwinian standard.
    Ucko’s attempt to delineate a specific date constituting the "demise of the organization" strikes me as silly.   This was not an incorporated entity whose charter expired on a specific date.  The Brinks Robbery of 1981 was an extraordinarily violent and bloody event resulting in several murders.  They may not have been using the Weather Underground brand name at the time, but it was the same cast of characters – Marilyn Buck, David Gilbert, Kathy Boudin, Judy Clarke, etc. – that was involved.  Frankly, I think it is useful to view the Weather Underground as very much the prototypical terrorists, which is why we should not be so afraid of them.

Switch to our mobile site