Tuning in on Terrorism

I’m a coward. And I’m not afraid to admit it. In Catholic grade school I was one of the weenies the class bully picked on. My high school letter is in “newspaper.” You jocks out there didn’t know a guy could letter in something as wimpy as that, did you? When my 2-S (college-student) deferment ran out, I enlisted in the Coast Guard, correctly concluding I’d never come closer to Southeast Asia than Hawaii. In the event, I never got any farther west than Duluth, Minnesota, while some classmates sweated out their tours as grunts in Vietnam.
All of the above is in the interest of full disclosure. So when I tell you that later this month I’m off to Israel on an Academic Fellowship on Terrorism, you’ll know that I’ll be looking over my shoulder the whole time. Some 45 faculty from universities across the country were picked for this fifth-annual fellowship by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies [www.defenddemocracy.com]. FDD was founded by Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick and other, mostly conservative, philanthropists and politicians, shortly after Nine/Eleven to help support democracies and confront terrorists around the world.
My own interest in terrorism predates September 11, 2001, by a couple of decades. In 1968, when my 2-S deferment was still solid, Paramount Pictures came to my hometown of Jim Thorpe to film “The Molly Maguires,” starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris. With many other locals, I briefly worked on the film’s set. Ten years later, I devoted the central chapter of my doctoral dissertation to a discussion of whether the Mollies really were a 19th century Irish terrorist organization in the Pennsylvania anthracite fields. Or were they neophyte labor organizers, branded “terrorists” in order to hang them and ‘bust’ their union?
Whatever the answer to that question (still controversial), the U.S. is no stranger to terrorism. An anarchist killed President McKinley shortly after he was elected at the turn of the last century, ironically enabling his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, to become one of our great national chief executives. During the Roaring Twenties, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed as much because they were Italian immigrant-anarchists as because they may have committed an armed robbery and murder. A bomb set off on Wall Street by a fellow anarchist sealed their fate, even though the evidence of their involvement in a payroll heist left lots of reasonable doubts.
The Sixties were a decade of domestic terror, carried out in the context of the unpopular war I joined the Coast Guard to avoid. The assassinations of John, Bobby and Martin; the bombings, arsons, and violent marches orchestrated by the Yippies, Weathermen, and Students for a Democratic Society; and the war between the Black Panthers and the nation’s police all contributed to the atmosphere of terror. Why some Baby Boomers of my generation now romanticize and even glorify the Sixties is a mystery to me. To quote from novelist-newspaperman Philip Caputo’s recent reminiscence on the 1970 Kent State shootings, which were precipitated in part by the fire bombing of KSU’s ROTC barracks, “It was a dreadful time.”
The Nineties were no pastoral period in the U.S. either. The first Islamic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center early in the decade prefigured the horror in store for us in the first year of the new millennium. So did the Oklahoma City bombing at mid-decade.
Like most Americans, I’ve tried to keep my head down and myself out of trouble across the six decades of Cold War, hot war, civil unrest, and terrorism that have disturbed the peace during my life. Consequently, friends and colleagues have wondered why apply for a fellowship on terrorism that will take me to the roiling Middle East to study the topic on its home turf.
Maybe it’s because Nine/Eleven seems somehow different from all the other acts of terror I’ve recounted in this column. From the Mollies to Sacco and Vanzetti, down to Lee Oswald and Tim McVeigh, my studies of terrorism in America never led me to conclude that the Republic was in mortal danger from these wild-eyed radicals.
In 2007, when radical Islam is locked in mortal combat with Western democracy, and the potential weapons could include biological plagues and dirty nukes, this old coward isn’t so sanguine about our prospects. So, head down and eyes over my shoulder, I’m off to get better informed about what a “War on Terror” really means.

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