Some Historical Perspective: Why Is Terrorism Cool Again?


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.

Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik
Sandeep Kaushik is a political and public affairs consultant in Seattle. In a previous life, he was a staff writer and political columnist at the Stranger, and did a stint as a Washington State correspondent for Time Magazine and for the Boston Globe, back in the olden days when such positions still existed.


  1. I should add that nothing I said above changes my view that Israel shares significant blame for the current plight of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. When I look at the current mess in the Middle East, I don’t really see any heroes or good guys, and (outside of condemning the use of terroristic violence as completely out of bounds) I don’t think a good-vs.-evil moral lens fits the situation particularly well.

    When it comes to the conflict itself, I guess I think the last 20 years of Israeli-Palestinian history has been a depressing backwards two-step, as both sides have engaged in tit-for-tat provocations that have made the prospect of any sort of just and lasting peace seem nearly impossible. On the one hand, right-wing expansionist Israeli governments have implemented settlement policies that have altered the facts on the ground in the West Bank to the point that a two-state solution may no longer be possible.

    But the Palestinians are hardly blameless. The fecklessness and corruption of the Palestinian Authority, and the fundamentalist death cult zealotry of Hamas has made the Israeli occupation, while questionable and perhaps counterproductive, also understandable. I mean, the idea we see from current campus left activists at Harvard, NYU et al, that Hamas is the agent of Palestinian liberation, is spectacularly, ludicrously wrong. If anything, the reality is just the opposite: Hamas’ bloodthirsty, uncompromising intransigence is a huge part of the reason why peace efforts over the last 20 years have either never taken off or foundered.

    What are we to make of it when the dispossessed are complicit in their own dispossession? When the oppressed are so curdled by their own rage that their only dream is a dark fantasy of one day oppressing and slaughtering their oppressors?

    What happens when there is no black and white, good and evil, when there is only the layering of pathologies and failures and mutual hatreds?

    This situation is what happens, more or less.

  2. Interesting look back at an era that coincided with my own undergraduate experience. To your list of films I would suggest adding “if” (lowercase is intentional), a 1968 British film that won the 1969 Palme D’Or in Cannes. It concerns a group of students reacting against stifling conformity to traditional norms at an English all-male private school — not an original trope, but in this case imagining rebellious teens finding a useful stash of WWII-era weaponry (in remarkably good condition) in a disused storage room. The resulting carnage was not an attempt to change the world or fight for some altruistic goal, just to inflict bloody revenge on their tormentors, who happened to be their parents, teachers and fellow students. I’m not sure what the film’s message was supposed to be, perhaps “Don’t mess with teenagers during a hormone storm.” It has been praised as one of the best British films ever made — not sure about that, but it certainly made an impression on me.

    • Thanks. I have watched “if” but it was many years ago, and I only retain a fw shards of memory. Probably merits a rewatch.

  3. Maybe I’m being too picky, and out of touch with your social media feed, but what about a specific example of someone supporting terrorism?

    Either in the past, or in the present? Movies about terrorists don’t really add up to support of terrorism. Opposition to Israel, even support of the Palestinian cause, isn’t support of terrorism.

    I’m not saying there isn’t any, just that it would be easier to decide whether you had a good case about sentiment towards terrorism, if there were an example or two. Not sure social media counts, if there’s no way to distinguish between 1% and 0.001% of the population.

    • Okay, in the last few days (I assume you agree that the Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians in southern Israel were acts of terrorism):

      There are plenty of tweets about the president of the NYU Law School Student Bar Assn prez who wrote that the Hamas attacks were “necessary.”

      Also a huge social media uproar about the statement from 30-ish Harvard student groups that exonerated Hamas for any blame for the attacks they made, Their statement begins, “”We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

      Yale professor who claimed all Israelis, including those living in Israel proper, are “settlers” and therefore not civilians, so attacking them was justified:

      At Swarthmore:

      DSA sponsored hate-filled pro-Hamas rally, leading to resignations and condemnations from some elected officials associated with the DSA:

      The (absolutely chilling) celebratory use of paraglider imagery in posters for “Day of Resistance” rallies on college campuses (including at UW), and in a tweet from BLM Chicago.

      I could go on, there are plenty of others, but these should suffice.

      • OK, thanks. What I see here, though, doesn’t seem so new to me (or old, in the sense of a postulated return to the ’70s.)

        Pro-Palestinian organizations have always had this odor, inasmuch as the struggle has always involved terrorism. It isn’t new for dedicated leftist organizations to line up with pro-Palestinians (after all, Palestinians are victims.)

        But when they do it here, there’s a big stink. AOC hammers on the DSA. Members resign. Cool? I don’t see it.

        I remember a guy in the office around the corner, who had a Che poster from back in the day. I don’t know, don’t remember that we ever really talked about terrorism, but personally I don’t think he was going there with that. The real Che was horrible, but as an icon, that was about alternatives to a society that really did (/does) have a lot of things wrong with it.

  4. What d’ya mean, looking back? The spirit of chic revolution lives on in The Stranger’s bring-on-jihad coverage of weekend pro-Palestinian protest in downtown Seattle.
    Will publication change its name to “Read October?”

  5. I guess I would take these rants a lot more seriously if apologists expressed more than a perfunctory disgust at Israel bombing of a Gaza hospital …. Or, maybe you believe the ludicrous explanation from Israel that the bombing was caused by a failed rocket launch from Gaza! …..even before that bomb destroyed hundreds of people who were simply sheltering in place, Israel mercilessly targeted people who had nothing to do with the attacks.

    • Why are you so sure that it was Israel that bombed the hospital? on what basis? Do you have any facts besides your prejudice?

    • It isn’t a ludicrous explantion. In fact, well respected OSINT groups like GeoConfirmed and OSINT Technical has debunked the Isreali strike assertion within 30 minutes using Hamas’ own camera feeds as part of the evidence. A barrage of missiles were fired, one went haywire which is common for the crappy builds of their ordinace, and it crashed down in the car park in the front of the hospital. Daytime video confirms now confirms minimal damages to the buildings, and a tiny blast crater of less than 1m width and 30 cm depth, also matching the missle crash explanation.

      Sorry, the facts are what they are.

  6. I love it when an obviously pro-Israel-at-alll-costs person calls others biased. Because Israel threatened complete retaliation against Gaza….in fact, bombed innocent civilians who were trying their best to get out of the way.
    The very real suffering of Israelis does not give them a blank check to destroy Palestinians’ homes and lives, and wreak suffering on innocent parents and children.

      • Of course, I’m not embarrassed I just don’t respond to taunts online. The U.S. has blindly supported Israel, and it’s hardly surprising that they would assert that the horrific bombing was the result of Hamas’s mistakes. That’s hardly surprising. But what shocks me, is ongoing silence about the morality of indiscriminate revenge attacks on Gaza’s population. But it’s not really surprising — you are not the only one who gives little to no regard to the ongoing suffering of Palestinian people. The morality of widescale revenge attacks on this population — of which 50% is under 18 by the way, so Israel is really waging war on children — is largely stoked by the mainstream media. CNN, for example, for days, gave only cursory attention to the rising death toll of Palestinians.

  7. Really interesting read, Sandeep. Thanks for the perspective. Weather Underground might not make it very far in the internet era. Unless you’re talking about WU the temperature and precipitation forecasting site, which seems to be doing pretty well.

  8. I think you should know, David Sucher — I will continue to speak out against Israel and Netanyahu’s monstrous policies, and this vengeful widescale destruction, which is do disastrous to the Palestinian people. You can troll me all you’d like, I will not be intimidated. That happens frequently to people who dare criticize Israel.

    • Trish, I want to sincerely apologize if you took the word “prejudice” as some kind of bad.

      I used “prejudice” technically in the sense that you had already made a decision about what had happened without knowing any facts (and that’s obviously true from your post). You had made a decision that the Israelis had bombed the hospital rather than the Hamas rocket having done the damage.

      Nevertheless, I want to say again that I am very sorry about your reaction to the word “prejudice”.

      As to your other statements, I think they are a perfect example of why PostAlley should give commenters a chance to edit. I’ve mentioned here before that enhanced commenting features would be a benefit. I know that have written a comment and wished that I could’ve nuanced it a little bit or even deleted it. I’m sure that pretty-much everyone does it.

  9. OK, as long as we’re OK with drifting off the topic (the topic is not, as I read it, the moral dilemmas posed by the conflict between Hamas and Israel) …

    What do we think about moderation and censorship, on Post Alley?

    “Please be respectful. No personal attacks. Your comment should add something to the topic discussion or it will not be published.”

    If it’s just less trouble to give commenters a lot of latitude and print everything that isn’t really horrible, OK. This can’t be making anyone a lot of money, and I’m happy to the point of delirium that it’s here. Not complaining.

    But, hello down there in the moderator pit, if you wish you could put a heavier hand on it, personally I think that could be OK too. Go read the Seattle Times comment section, and imagine yourself wading in there. People with better stuff, are more likely to show up in a better scene.

    • It’s not just less trouble. We try to find a balance between letting people express themselves and unpopular views with trying to keep discussions on track. Currently about 7-10 percent of comments go unapproved for one reason or another (usually attacks or name-calling). That said, I think it’s important to show the range of opinions and thinking out there, even when the ideas are unpopular or might be wrong. We also don’t edit comments – after some debate about whether to – as “how” people express themselves often gives insight into how they think. Some have suggested we let commenters edit their comments after they’re posted. We don’t. Someone makes a comment, others respond to it, and meanwhile the original commenter goes back and edits the original and changes what they say. then the comment thread makes no sense.

      I think Post Alley has developed a cadre of thoughtful and opinionated commenters and the comments are often interesting and informative. So from my perspective, at least, our commenting system works pretty well.

      PA Editor

  10. One more movie I would add to my list in the piece above, one I completely missed back in the day: The Year of the Gun (1991), starring Andrew McCarthy and Sharon Stone(!) and directed by John Frankenheimer (whop also directed Black Sunday). The movie is set against the backdrop of spiraling civil unrest, street battles and bombings in Italy initiated by radical left wing students and activists who felt betrayed by the Italian Communist Party’s “Historic Compromise” political alliance with the center-left Christian Democracy Party led by former prime minister Aldo Moro.

    The plot centers on an American journalist and aspiring novelist (McCarthy), who lives in Rome in the late ’70 and, drawing on the chaos he see growing around him, who writes a draft novel about a fictional plot by the Italian Red Brigades radical left terror group to kidnap Moro. But the actual Red Brigades, who were actually plotting to kidnap Moro (they did so in real life in March 1978, executing him 55 days later), catch wind of the novel due to some loose talk by a beautiful, ambitious American photojournalist (Stone) who had struck up a relationship with McCarthy’s character. The Red Brigades, thinking their secret kidnap plot has been compromised, then set out to kill the two Americans, and…

    I watched in last night, and while it wasn’t the greatest movie I’ve ever seen — as you can tell from my description above, the plot is pretty ridiculous — it was both entertaining and totally on point. There’s a fair bit of sociologically themed dialogue between the main characters too, about the Red Brigades, student zealotry, the efficacy of revolutionary violence, and how best to create political change, which was fun.

    I also discovered just last night that there is a 2022 Italian mini-series, titled Exterior Night, about the Moro kidnapping and murder (which I remember was a major international news story at the time) that has received rave reviews, but unfortunately I can’t find it streaming anywhere at present.

  11. Yesterday I got some pushback from a local journalist I respect on the piece I wrote above, suggesting that I am exaggerating the extent of the “celebrating revolutionary violence” crowd. It’s a reasonable criticism. Is it really all that significant that some small segment of the present day left is lauding or justifying the Hamas’ slaughter of Israeli civilians, or is this just a few fringe-o zealots and hotheads and sophomoric kids and activist professors who are getting massively over-amplified on social media, given the algorithmic bias towards promoting extremism and generating controversy?

    But I think the answer is that, yes, it is significant. For one thing, there was actually a fair amount of highly vocal and visible (thank you, social media) expressions of “the Israeli settler-colonialists are entirely at fault for all the violence” and “this is what decolonization looks like” posturing in the immediate wake of the Hamas attack (the fierce backlash over the last week plus has tamped a lot of that down now, though new examples surface daily), though it’s true it was mostly on elite college campuses.

    That said, while these voices aren’t representative of the mainstream left, and their overall numbers may be small, they are without a doubt disproportionately influential. The Democratic Socialists of America aren’t, in terms of their overall numbers, a large political group, but they have outsize influence over progressive activists and within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So when they sponsor a rally in NYC that veers into anti-semitism and seems to justify the mass murder of Israeli civilians, that’s meaningful and needs to be taken seriously.

    Similarly, what happens in Harvard Yard, or at Yale or Stanford or Swarthmore (or on the UW campus), isn’t indicative of the views of all college students (even those that are left-leaning), but these schools are the training grounds for the next generation of cosmopolitan progressive elites, so the political/cultural attitudes and views expressed there are often on the leading edge of broader change, and can tell us something about where the left is headed. I mean, the emerging, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist (and anti-American) radicalism within Students for a Democratic Society in the late ’60s was never a majority viewpoint on the left, but it was a leading indicator and warning sign of the major wave of left radical domestic terrorism that would beset the US in the early-to-mid ’70s.

    And yes (of course) there’s plenty of deeply concerning extreme pro-violence views on the right, even more so than on the extreme left. For example, MAGA radical Joe Kent’s extreme civil war-adjacent rhetoric is very much outside the mainstream and hugely concerning. What happened on Jan. 6th, and how so many on the right are denying or minimizing the violent nature of what happened at the Capitol, was — or at least should be — a big wake up call.

    But here’s the baseline reality: extreme polarization is pulling the country apart, and pushing extremists on both sides of the political divides to start legitimizing the idea that political violence is a valid means of attaining ideological objectives. Sorry, Seattle, it’s not just a right-wing problem. I mean, in ’21 we almost elected a City Attorney in Seattle who repeatedly and explicitly cheered on rioting, arson, property destruction, and other street disorder to advance progressive political objectives (as many mainstream progressive organizations — and far too many members of the local media — hand waved away her pro-violence tweets as a legitimate expression of righteous anti-racist anger).

    Just two days ago the UVA Center for Politics released some really concerning polling numbers: 41 percent of Biden supporters say they believe people who support the Republican party and its ideologies have become “so extreme in what they want that it is acceptable to use violence to stop them from achieving their goals.” Likewise, 38 percent of Trump supporters say it is OK to use violence to stop Democrats from achieving their goals. A shocking 31 percent of Trump supporters said democracy is no longer a viable system of governance and the US should explore alternative forms of government to ensure stability and progress, but so did 24 percent of Biden supporters.

    Polling results like that tell me that support for, and the threat of, political violence is a real issue in the US — on both sides — and that the extreme views we’ve seen on social media in the wake of the Hamas attack are indicative of some larger cultural and political trends, and not really that far on the fringes anymore.


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