Most people have largely erased it from the memory hole, but I’m just old enough to remember that, born from the global turbulence of the late ’60s early ’70s, a significant and vocal strain of the American left openly celebrated revolutionary violence and legitimized terrorism.
Downstream from the writings of anti-colonialist intellectual Frantz Fanon, terrorism in the service of national liberation was, in the view of the radical left, a potent, attention-grabbing weapon of the weak (remember all those plane hijackings?). Violence against the colonial oppressor was actually humanizing, a psychologically cleansing and empowering act on the part of the dispossessed.
Terrorism and violence went hand in hand with Boomer radicalism. Spurred by frustrated opposition to the seemingly endless Vietnam War, and anti-imperialist sentiment more generally, there were 1470 incidents of domestic terrorism in the United States in the 1970s, resulting in 184 deaths, according to the Rand Corporation.
In the mid-‘70s, there were more than 50 bombings per year in the US; globally, there was an airline hijacking or bombing about once a month(!). Others put the number of terrorism incidents even higher: in 2016 Time Magazine reported that, “in a single 18-month period during 1971 and 1972, the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day.”
The radical chic notion that violence in the service of revolution was, well, romantic, went into a slow fade through the ‘80s and ‘90s, but then things changed dramatically (dare I say, radically?) in the U.S. with 9/11; after that national trauma, openly supporting acts of terrorism in the service of anti-colonialism or anti-racism or anti-capitalism, or really any cause, became not just politically but socially unacceptable, even in most rad left cultural spaces. Between 2002 and 2013, Rand found only 214 acts domestic terrorism (even as the number of terrorism incidents globally was much higher than in the ‘70s).
The radical equation of political violence with social liberation was expunged from our collective consciousness with breathtaking rapidity. So about 10 years ago, when I first grokked this shift, I decided to embark on a personal retrospective movie series under the theme and title, “When Terrorism Was Still Cool!” My intent was to dig up and watch movies about the pre-9/11 era that captured the American and international radical left’s enthusiastic embrace of violence and terrorism. I was curious how those attitudes would seem in the new, post-9/11 world. I wanted to remind myself of the “revolutionary” vibe from that era, to re-familiarize myself with the society-shattering, deeply quixotic idealism of the radical Boomer left.
I started with the Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), which is a fun movie about the radicalization of young, privileged West Germans in the ’70s and the bathos embedded in the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction. Next up was the four part, five hour French mini-series Carlos (2010), a masterful biopic about curdled idealism and the (quite spectacular) exploits of left wing, international terrorist-for-hire superstar Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal (he really was seen as a glamorous celebrity in some parts of the world).
Then Fidel (2002), an overlong, forgettable biopic about Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, and Paul Schrader’s brutally uncompromising Patty Hearst (1988), which darkly recounts her kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army and her refashioning as bank-robbing revolutionary Tania, and Spielberg’s Munich (2005), and Black Sunday (1977), a thriller about a fictional plot by Palestinian terrorist group Black September to use the Goodyear blimp to bomb the Super Bowl.
I finally closed with The Weather Underground (2002), which is a documentary, but which bears a lot of similarity to the Baader Meinhof Complex in that it focuses on how and why some very privileged, young white American college students turned to violence to combat the Vietnam War and trigger a chimerical revolution that they convinced themselves was imminent. I’m sure there were some others I am now forgetting (I watched it a few years later, but I’d also recommend Guerilla, a 2017 Brit miniseries about an underground cell of Black Power radicals in the UK in the early ’70s).
It was entertaining to go back and mine those movies and TV shows for sociological insights, particularly how the far left in that pre-9/11 era saw terroristic violence as cool and even sexy (apparently revolutionaries, at least of the Western, young, white, privileged variety, have a lot of energetic, uninhibited group sex). Its proponents were glamorous outlaws, free from the cosseted straitjacket of bourgeois propriety or traditional morality, fighting the good fight for global justice. Saints and apostles of a New Testament of virtue, only armed, ruthless, and deliciously dangerous.
There’s a scene in Carlos that has stuck with me, because it so perfectly captures the mix of youthful disdain for Establishment convention, desire for personal glory, and callous indifference to human suffering that defined the revolutionary left of the 1970s. In that scene our anti-hero strides confidently into a conference room in Vienna, Austria in 1975, where his comrades from the German Revolutionary Cells, having just successfully stormed the headquarters of OPEC, are holding the leaders of the world’s oil cartel hostage. After casually shooting an underling, Carlos looks at the powerful government ministers who control the global oil supply and says, with studied understatement, “My name is Carlos. You may have heard of me.”
This sums it up: the bombings and kidnappings and hijackings were supposed to be about fighting the Man, lifting up the downtrodden, and rectifying historical injustice. But it was just as much about being cool and shocking the squares out of their comfortable complacency.
Of course, at the time I was watching these movies — pre-Trump, pre-COVID, pre-the Great Awokening — I was convinced that this was a historical exercise; the era when privileged American college kids glorified Fidel and Che and Palestinian terrorists and fervently championed left collectivist repudiations of the post-war liberal democratic order was very much over.
Silly me. Skip forward to the present. Hamas launches a bloody surprise terrorist attack on southern Israel, slaughtering hundreds of civilians, lovingly capturing much of the brutality on camera and then posting the gruesome footage on social media. And… to my surprise… suddenly my social media feeds are filled with the strident, uncompromising bumper-sticker-deep ideological pronouncements supporting the violence emanating from a seemingly endless array of fragmented but overlapping identity-fixated campus progressive groups, radical professors, internet influencers (and even porn stars).
And so it dawns on me that for the current generation of campus leftists, 9/11 is now a historical event, or at best a distant memory. The searing convulsions of the 20th century — the extremist experiments in far-right fascistic nationalism and far-left collectivist totalitarianism, the Soviet bloc and its brutally dehumanizing totalitarian surveillance state tactics, the ideological madness and petty viciousness of the Cultural Revolution, the ideological purism behind the killing fields of SE Asia — are all just words in a boring book. Terrorism is cool again, at least for some subset of the most strident and polarized left, and performative, facile, moralized political binaries are once again in vogue.
This revival has been massively exacerbated by social media tribalism and the emergence of hegemonic progressive groupthink microcultures and bubbles on many elite campuses. Statements like “Israel is an illegitimate settler-colonialist apartheid state!” or slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” are quotidian and unremarkable, and go without any challenge or pushback. Those on campus who disagree — I’m sure there are many — know it’s a lot easier to keep their yaps shut than to try to introduce nuance, ambiguity or complexity to the discussion.
I should state here, clearly, for the record, that I don’t think terroristic violence is cool again for most of the mainstream polarized left. House Progressive caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal was, to her credit, quick to denounce Hamas’ violence against Israeli civilians. AOC publicly repudiated the antisemitic tone at an anti-Israel rally in New York City last week. There are plenty of other examples.
But that said, too often and too consistently leaders of the movement left have embraced, pandered to or associated themselves with voices and organizations that are now excusing terrorism, and posting approving memes of Hamas paragliders on their way to slaughter young people at a rave, and otherwise saying odious and disqualifying things about the Hamas terrorist attack.
So I’ll conclude this by suggesting that it seems clear to me that at least some element of the Millennial/Gen Z left is, without knowing it, reenacting and replicating, with eerie precision, the failed, fractious, dead end Boomer generation radical leftism that flowered on elite college campuses in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “OK, Boomer,” indeed.
And that, contra the late American colonial era historian John Murrin (who back in the early ’90s taught my History 500: Introduction to Historiography class) and really all my grad school history profs, maybe Santayana was correct after all.