A militant left-wing group that disbanded three decades ago re-entered the public consciousness this month when Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”
Obama had been linked to the former leader of the Weather Underground, a US anti-war group which in the seventies sought to “bring the war home” through a campaign of militant direct action against targets on home soil.
The Weathermen, as they were known, took care to avoid injuring people in the course of their campaign.
But they saw little role for ordinary people in the struggle for a peaceful world. What was needed was an elite group of highly committed individuals, who would be prepared to go to any lengths to disrupt the war machine.
In 1973 the US government backed a coup in Chile which brought the dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. When evidence emerged of the involvement of a conglomerate called ITT Corporation, the Weathermen
had their next target. Surely any action that hindered the activities of an organisation complicit in a brutal totalitarian regime was morally justified – perhaps even a moral obligation.
On 28th September 1973, ITT received warnings to evacuate its staff and the Weather Underground detonated bombs in ITT’s headquarters in New York and Rome. Of course, this single act of sabotage
did not solve the problem of war. Perhaps the Weathermen hoped their spectacular action would inspire others to take matters into their own hands, and eventually the apparatus of destruction would be brought to a halt. The American populace was not so inclined, and there was no-one to replace the Weathermen when they turned themselves in to the authorities in the late seventies.
Why had no-one realised that they too could help change the world, if only they were determined enough? Did the entire American people support Pinochet, the My Lai massacre and the other crimes which the Weathermen tried to avenge? Were they complicit?
The Weathermen should not have been surprised that their campaign failed. They seemed to know early on that the average American had no interest in insurrection. Instead they appealed to an alienated subculture
of American youth. “Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks,” declared an early communiqué.
It was not through excessive wealth that ordinary people had no appetite for direct action. In fact the opposite was true. It was only the privileged background of the Weathermen (they were the children of bankers and lawyers) which allowed them to commit so unconditionally to the cause. With a little more empathy they might have realised that they were not giving Americans the chance to support peace when ordinary people had mortgages and families to worry about. In fact they were probably damaging the prospects for mass anti-war protests by fuelling the inevitable association of peace activists with what looked to ordinary people like an extremist minority.
This week, ITT Corporation will be targeted by anti-war protesters much closer to home. A group called Smash EDO will march from campus to the factory of ITT’s subsidiary in Moulsecoomb.
The corporation is guilty of new crime – manufacturing weapons used in Iraq – but the philosophy of its antagonists bears many similarities.
They haven’t gone to the lengths of the Weathermen, but Smash EDO have made clear they hold the same disdain for the very people they should be trying to bring on side. They regularly protest noisily outside the EDO factory, shouting at the workers, calling them “murderers”. For Smash EDO, the workers are complicit
– after all, getting a different job would be as easy as, say, getting drunk in the union bar or writing an essay on Foucault. Presumably when they scheduled this week’s ‘mass’ demonstration they forgot that ‘the mass’ don’t get Wednesday afternoons off. Their last such demonstration resulted in the PR coup of mothers with pushchairs having to run the gauntlet of hundreds of masked up peace protesters, who marched down Lewes Road pursued by riot police.
The most shrill pro-war voices on campus will condemn Smash EDO in terms similar to those Palin used against Obama. Those of us who believe just as strongly in peace – but also that it could never be achieved by the actions of a minority, however noble – should be cautious. Direct action might seem moral but it doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of peace, and might even be precluding it.