when there were 5 bombings a day in America and it wasn’t a big deal

Some years ago, I was in an absurd and extremely uncommon situation: my employer was targeted by a real-life “domestic terrorist organization,” and I’d openly agreed with the group’s political objectives beforehand. I was doing animal research with rats, and some of my advisor’s other work with monkeys drew the group’s attention. They set things on fire and made death threats and picketed houses and so on. I kept a low profile, but I was a grad student in the lab and worried about my car enough to put a pro-vegan sticker on it (“Is this the right car?”). Two people on my dissertation committee had property at their homes destroyed by the group. My advisor staged pro-animal research counter-demonstrations, in public, which I attended along with everybody else in the lab.

I was disillusioned with grad school and hurting rats for no good reason. My then-girlfriend talked me into becoming vegan (converting a “vivisectionist” gets you bonus vegan points). I still “had to” finish, for a combination of self-serving reasons and the fact that my dad had recently died proud that I was about to be a “doctor.” He grew up sharecropping in the Mississippi Delta, so it had huge symbolic significance. I’ve now been vegan longer than I was in grad school.

I started bringing vegan sandwiches instead of pizza to lab meetings about a year before the animal rights drama, and the FBI asked me questions about meeting my girlfriend and having no life and not getting along with my advisor and what I really thought about animal research. That was scarier than the Animal Liberation Front, since it looked so bad circumstantially. I’m sure they looked at my internet and phone records, laughed at how much World of Warcraft I was playing, and ruled out the possibility. To my surprise, I never had trouble at airports in the mean time. But it’s necessarily true that my name is on a hard drive somewhere in a folder that says “terrorism investigation.” I worry about the day a SQL query places my name on a list of people who should be preventatively executed.

I also feel like I’m already fucked, if I’m fucked for that reason. I’m at the mercy of the future and what it does with all the data.

To emphasize, there was a period when I had reasonable fears about the ALF and the FBI at the same time. In the lab I was The Sympathizer Guy. On the internet, I argued with animal rights people about self-defeating scientifically-illiterate things they said. I could observe that threats to someone’s children really did make them cease to work with monkeys. I was familiar with how animal research was regulated, since I was conducting it in compliance with those regulations. Never, in a million years, would Congress pass a bill that does what the ALF wants to achieve. Therefore, if they still wish to achieve it, as a logical necessity, they have to resort to some other means. My advisor and myself were personally harming animals. My advisor’s life was significantly affected, to the point of needing security guards, chased out of the neighborhood, etc.

This one time, I had a therapist who didn’t always listen, and by then I already had some distance from all this. I mentioned “the FBI thing” in passing and she looked at me like I was crazy all of a sudden. You see: the terrorists were out to get me, but so was the FBI, and they were recording my web traffic, and I was in a secret government database of suspicious people. I’m sure she’s heard that one before!

My point is this: I was able to maintain some objectivity throughout the situation, in partial agreement and disagreement with both sides. I could acknowledge the sense in which I was “asking for it,” and I could understand the motivations of people who were inconveniencing me. My involvement in the situation was peripheral, but I was there. Sometimes, just to be sure, I’d check under my car before getting into it after work. What if they start hollering about how evil I am outside my apartment for hours? They’re people in ninja masks with hammers:

Maybe the world’s smallest violin plays for grad students, but if you were in year 5 of grad school and had to start your dissertation all over, you’d consider suicide. Grad school is a mental health catastrophe without that:

Nearly 40% of graduate students reported feeling hopeless during the previous year, 78.5% said they had felt overwhelmed, 27.2% said they had felt depressed, and 54.5% said they had felt stress over the past year ranging from “more than average” to “tremendous.”

A 2006 report from UC paints a similar picture. About 60% of graduate students said that they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time. One in 10 said they had contemplated suicide in the previous year.

I watched TV all day on 9/11 just like everybody else.  To be honest, my very first reaction to the phone call that woke me up was to be impressed with the audacity, wondering what the ideology would turn out to be and hoping it wasn’t an Islamic religious thing.  It felt like the most interesting thing in the news recently, not like it was Pearl Harbor and I was personally under attack.  The fact that the majority of people had an emotional meltdown and gave up all their rights and started a Crusade is contemptible, even by the prevailing standards of masculinity in America in the 1970s.

The point of this post is not to brag about my extraordinary courage. It’s that my experience used to be common in America, and my reaction was typical, and America has completely lost its mind. I just finished the preface to Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

Because radical violence was so deeply woven into the fabric of 1970s America that many citizens, especially in New York and other hard-hit cities, accepted it as part of daily life. As one New Yorker sniffed to the New York Post after an FALN attack in 1977, “Oh, another bombing? Who is it this time?” It’s a difficult attitude to comprehend in a post-9/11 world, when even the smallest pipe bomb draws the attention of hundreds of federal agents and journalists.

“People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States,” notes a retired FBI agent, Max Noel. “People don’t want to listen to that. They can’t believe it. One bombing now and everyone gets excited. In 1972? It was every day. Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.”

During an eighteen-month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2500 bombings on US soil, nearly 5 a day. Yet less than 1 percent of the 1970s era bombings led to a fatality; the single deadliest radical-underground attack of the decade killed four people. Most bombings were followed by communiques denouncing some aspect of the American condition; bombs basically functioned as exploding press releases. The sheer number of attacks led to a grudging public resignation. Unless someone was killed, press accounts rarely carried any expression of outrage. In fact, as hard as it may be to comprehend today, there was a moment during the early 1970s when bombings were viewed by many Americans as a semilegitimate form of protest. In the mind of others, they amounted to little more than a public nuisance.

Consider what happened when an obscure Puerto Rican group, MIRA, detonated bombs in two Bronx theaters in New York on May 1, 1970. Eleven people suffered minor injuries when one device went off at the Dale Theater during a showing of Cactus Flower. The second exploded beneath a seat at the cavernous Loew’s Paradise while a rapt audience watched The Liberation of LB Jones; when police ordered everyone to leave, the audience angrily refused, demanding to see the rest of the movie. When the theater was forcibly cleared, an NYPD official said later, the audience “about tore the place apart.” Neither the bombings nor the Paradise audience’s reaction was deemed especially newsworthy; the incident drew barely six paragraphs in the New York Times.

Or consider this:

Imagine if this happened today: Hundreds of young Americans–white, black, and Hispanic–disappear from their everyday lives and secretly form urban guerilla groups. Dedicated to confronting the government and righting society’s wrongs, they smuggle bombs into skyscrapers and federal buildings and detonate them from coast to coast. They strike inside the Pentagon, inside the US Capitol, at a courthouse in Boston, at dozens of multinational corporations, at a Wall Street restaurant packed with lunchtime diners. People die. They rob banks, dozens of them, launch raids on National Guard arsenals, and assassinate policemen, in New York, in San Francisco, in Atlanta. There are deadly shoot-outs and daring jailbreaks, illegal government break-ins and a scandal in Washington.

When the Boston Marathon bombings happened, they declared martial law and started mistreating everyone in sight. America seemed to view this as proportionate:

I don’t understand mainstream America’s fears.

I turned 18 just as Bush was stealing the 2000 election, so the cancer that’s killing society has been a feature of my entire adult life.  I remember when you could just walk to the terminal and meet people as they got off the plane.  I remember the Clinton impeachment for low crimes and misdemeanors.  History won’t judge us kindly.  I don’t understand why it’s easier to imagine that black people are dirty apes, or that America might come under Islamic law, than it is to imagine that the threat of terrorism is fake and we do better when we don’t give our rights away in a panic.