Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Terrorists of the 1970s

CNN's original series The Seventies (a sequel to CNN's successful earlier series The Sixties) offers a series of thematic episodes that try to recapture, through old film and TV footage, the experience of that problematic decade. For those of us who lived through the 70s, it rekindles memories of that tumultuous time, which was in so many ways as formative for what followed as was the 60s, but more easily overlooked than that ostensibly more glamorous decade. Like its predecessor The Sixties, The Seventies is found in CNN's Thursday night lineup.

Eschewing simple chronology in favor of a more thematic approach, The Seventies started light with an episode ("Television Gets Real") on the decisive changes in TV programing during the decade. The second episode ("The United States versus Nixon") tackled Watergate. The third ("Peace with Honor") dealt with Vietnam. The fourth ("Crimes and Cults) concerned some of the decades notorious killings (from the "Manson Family" to the Jim Jones cult and its famous Kool-Aid). The fifth ("The State of the Union is not Good") recounted the political crises of the unsuccessful Ford and Carter administrations. Finally, this week's episode 6 ("The Golden Age of Terrorism") dealt with the various acts of political terrorism perpetrated by, among others, the Weather Underground and the SLA in the US, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the IRA (the murder of Lord Mountbatten, the bombing in Birmingham), and, of course, the PLO and its offshoots' multiple terrorist attacks in Israel and in the air (beginning with the hijackings of several U.S-bound jets in September 1970 and the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972).

The first time I flew on a plane in July 1970, there was virtually no airport security at all. There were no metal detectors. Friends and family could accompany passengers right up to the gate (and meet them there on their return). It was all much more casual, but soon to change thanks to hijackings and the even worse terrorist attacks, which almost seemed to herald the start of the new decade - as another, more massive terrorist attack would, 31 years later, mark the new millennium. 

IRA terrorism, of course, continued a long on-again, off-again conflict in Northern Ireland, revived in the 1960s but dating back to the Irish rebellion and subsequent civil war during and after World War I. Likewise, PLO terrorism had its own independent history, having its roots in Arab obstructionism and opposition to Israel from its founding (and actually also before). But the other terrorist groups - the Weather Underground and the SLA in the US, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany - all definitely had their roots in the turmoil of the 60s. As the protest movements of the 60s died down or evolved into more conventional movements, a small militant remnant remained ready to do whatever they thought it took to express their anger and make revolution happen. Paradoxically, it was one of the most peripheral American terror groups, the SLA, that may have gotten the most media attention after the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Personally, I can remember watching the famous "SLA Shootout" after my Master's General Examination at Princeton in May 1974! But it was in Europe - especially Italy and Germany - where the homegrown terror groups seemed to have the most pronounced effect on the national political culture. Who can forget the  Red Brigades' murder of Aldo Moro and its effect on the dying Pope Paul VI, who broke precedent to celebrate his old friend's funeral at the Lateran Basilica? The first time I visited Italy in the late 1980s, the impact of the so-called "Years of Lead" of the 1970s was still in evidence. 

Terrorism in the 1970s was always about getting attention. As one commentator on the program put it: "The 1970s saw the development of the terrorist  repertoire." But it also saw the beginning of a coherent response - the way led, not surprisingly, by the Israelis, who had the most experience, having been on the receiving end of Arab terrorism for their country's entire history (and before). The Germans did not let the Israelis attempt to free the hostages in Munich, and the German effort to do so failed tragically. But the Israelis' successful raid to free Israeli hostages at Entebbe in Uganda in July 1976 showed it could be done and became sort of the gold standard of hostage rescues.

What struck me rather forcefully as the TV brought back those frightening images of 1970s terrorism was how distant it all seemed - even then. Everyone understood that the Middle East and Northern Ireland were dangerous places, but generally speaking we in the United States did not feel overwhelmed by the fear of terrorism, in spite of the occasional terrorist acts that occurred. Perhaps it was the overwhelming sense of social breakdown (especially in cities like New York - e.g.. see my previous post on the 1977 Blackout). Perhaps, random bombings, etc., just blended in somehow with already heightened anxiety about urban crime. Perhaps, it is just harder to focus on seemingly random domestic terrorism in contrast to foreign attack. 

Whatever the explanation, it would take an altogether new type of attack on an unprecedented scale in 2001 to shake us from our complacency. 

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