February 14, 2002


"The 60s were full of challenge," writes J.H. Tompkins in the SF Bay Guardian, "and although I'm not a revolutionary now, in my heart, I'm still a revolutionary then."


Anyone who retains romantic notions about 60s radicalism can instantly dispel them by reading this incoherent and abominable near-defense of the SLA. The failing battle to master the rudiments of linear time embodied in that sentence (a classic acid-casualty hallmark) is only the tip of what might be called a clinically damaged iceberg. Tompkins's concern is that what he coyly refers to as "the T-word" (no dude, it's not Terrapin Station-- it's terrorism) is compromising the heroic legacy of the 60s, obscuring the "real story."

"Let's face it," he writes. "2002 is a bad time to be labelled a terrorist."

It's an even worse time (depending, perhaps, on whether you favor the defense or the prosecution) to be put on trial for actually having been a terrorist. Or does he dispute that setting bombs under police cars and murdering little old ladies in order to make an unintelligible "political statement" qualify as "terrorism?" This is one thing, of many, on which is he not entirely clear.

Tompkins is careful to avoid explicitly championing the SLA's "cause" and stresses that, even as 60s radicals go, they were loopier than most. But even as he denounces the SLA, the thrust of his condemnation is not so much that they were terrorists, but that they were inept terrorists, ruining the party for everyone: "in those days, its members were too visible, too stupid, and after the Hearst kidnapping they attracted an army of government agents." As his own article indicates, there was something like a community of interests, affinities and goals among these people, and, in important respects, the SLA differed from other groups only in degree. They all knew each other, all moved in the same circles. Indeed, this is his chief worry. If the SLA were terrorists, then the Weathermen were terrorists, Venceremos were terrorists, and so on, and so on: before you know it, "the legacy of a generation of idealistic people whose actions changed the nation forever is at risk."

Well, you know what? The Weathermen were terrorists. Some of them are unrepentant to this day. People like Tompkins, who boasts that he "hung out with" Weathermen in the good old days, are just going to have to deal with it. Many of the "activists" he tried to interview refused to speak on the record, worried that the arrest and prosecution of the SLA (dubbed "The Payback" in a section heading) struck a little too close to home. That's who he's talking about when he says "the turn of events is a kind of worst-case scenario for everybody." (I don't know about you, but it's not even remotely a worst-case scenario for me; nor for the family of Myrna Opshal, the murdered bank customer-- but then, we weren't part of the hallowed revolutionary brotherhood "back then." As Tompkins says, with striking originality, "maybe you had to be there.")

The ones who did agree to be quoted are a pretty sad, burnt-out bunch, apparent bearers of that other noted 60s legacy ("you partied like there was no tomorrow, because really, who knew?")

"And then came the kidnapping of Hearst," says one luminary, presenting the radicals' own incisive critique of the SLA: "that was so bizarre. I laughed. I mean, was this a movie or what?"

For another, the SLA's brand of urban terrorism is, compared with today's state-of-the-art version, quaint and naive, almost cute, like a colt taking its first steps: "things were simpler in 1975. We didn't have the kind of terrorism we have today. The fact is that the '70s terrorists were rank amateurs, new to violence, who didn't know how to use it." Ah, the sweet, blessed days of terrorism's infancy: we didn't know how good we had it. And did you know, we stopped the Viet Nam war?

And then there's Tompkins himself. He is lost in a nostalgic fog, with no apparent notion that his intended defense of the legacy of the violent radicalism of the 60s will likely be read by most people as a further indictment of it. Even, maybe, in San Francisco.

"There was a time long ago," he writes, "when [Patty] Hearst experienced a moment of transcendence that most of us can only dream of. After two months in captivity, Hearst ditched the straight life, stepped forward, and exposed and publicly humiliated her father who, through his wealth and media empire, had heaped insult and indignity on countless others." He describes this "moment of glory" as "the one shining moment in the dismal history of the SLA." Tompkins's all-consuming enthusiasm, after all these years, for this kind of "transcendence," for the redemptive power of stickin' it to the old man, is as much a relic of the past as the Jefferson Airplane, the Beadazzler, and earth shoes. Rebellion against parental authority there will always be, but most will outgrow it. Few will in middle age continue to dream wistfully of the Patty Hearst experience. Few regard the pretense of concern for "social justice," Maoist rhetoric, Henry Kissinger, or partying like there's no tomorrow as mitigating factors when it comes to murder and random mayhem. 60s-style violent radicalism was a dead dog long before 9/11, and no accusation of McCarthyism will change that. In that sense, there is no legacy. These people, along with their organizations, their causes, their activities, their "ideas," their social critiques, etc. are largely forgotten; as Tompkins shows, most of them like it that way, since being remembered could well land them in the dock.

As for those who are already there, Tompkins bemoans "the possibility that a jury will ignore the lack of evidence, buy into the war on terrorism, and send the defendants to jail for life."

If the SLA members killed a woman in a bank robbery, the passage of time and the political context will never justify their actions.

But it's hardly fair. The SLA members, most of them, anyway, were sucked into a political shitstorm started by others. Robert McNamara, William Westmoreland, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger (to name a few) were guilty of sending 50,000 American kids to their deaths and laying waste to Vietnam, a country that was lovely, except where it was nothing but craters and rubble.

Fair or not, I'm guessing that the far out and funky "Kissinger sucked me into it" defense isn't going to work. The problem is that everyone has bought into the war on the T-word, and their priorities aren't so groovy anymore: in this ugly, reactionary climate, blindly holding T-ists accountable for absolutely no reason is preferred to taking LSD and stickin' it to the old man. Oink oink.

Cool legacy, dude.

Posted by Dr. Frank at February 14, 2002 12:39 AM | TrackBack
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