National Security & Defense

It’s Not the 1960s: Group Violence in America Is Hard to Pull Off

Police secure the scene of the shooting in Alexandria, Va., June 14, 2017. (Reuters photo: Mike Theiler)
Most of the recent grim news involves lone-wolf perpetrators or a pair of them.

San Bernardino. Orlando. Alexandria. It may feel like America is descending into chaos, but those who seek to shed innocent blood in the name of an ideology in 2017 actually face a tough, hardened society, well versed in the methods of terrorists and armed with considerable tools to fight them. Recent history suggests that group or cell-based violence is difficult, or perhaps even impossible, to pull off in modern America.

John Podhoretz recoils from the mad bloodlust of the Alexandria shooter and wonders if we’re about to experience “a similar feeling of chaos” as in 1968; our Max Bloom lays out the numerous ways that the circumstances just aren’t parallel.

The political and social conflicts of 1968 didn’t remain confined to that year; when people speak of “the Sixties,” they mean to include the violence that stretched past the turn of the decade into the early Seventies. The Weather Underground, perhaps the most infamous of the radical groups terrorizing Americans, set off gasoline-filled Molotov cocktails outside the home of a judge, leveled a townhouse in Greenwich Village and killed their own members with a powerful bomb, and detonated sticks of dynamite outside New York Police Department headquarters.

It’s easy to forget just how comparably vast some of these radical groups were. About 800 members of the Weathermen came out to square off against the Chicago police on October 8, 1969. After two clashes with the police left many injured and arrested, about 200 to 300 members of the Weathermen decided at the “Flint War Council” to shift to working in cells or small groups and to plot bombings. The moral inversion on display was jaw-dropping:

Some who attended the War Council said the highlight was a speech given by [Bernardine] Dohrn.

Dohrn reportedly spoke admiringly of the murders of actress Sharon Tate and others in California by Charles Manson and his cult family in 1969, according to later accounts. Holding up three fingers, Dohrn described how Manson’s people used forks to stab the bodies after they murdered their victims.

For the rest of the council, the Weathermen used the three-finger salute as a rallying symbol.

It may seem we’re living in the most dire of troubled times, but then you read about two generations ago, when groups of people gathered to celebrate Charles Manson as a role model for social change, and suddenly modern society doesn’t seem to be doing so badly.

We’ve suffered more than our share of bloodshed since 9/11, but since that awful Tuesday morning that changed everything, it’s become exponentially harder to commit an attack as part of a group. The terror attacks that have succeeded since 9/11 have been the work of “lone wolves” or duos: a radicalized psychiatrist at Fort Hood, two brothers setting up a pressure-cooker bomb in Boston, a husband and wife in San Bernardino, a son of Afghan immigrants shooting up a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Ben Franklin reportedly said, “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” It appears that keeping a terror plot secret is much harder when it involves three or more perpetrators than when it has just one or two. There are just too many opportunities for someone to spill the beans, get caught in an NSA or FBI surveillance net, associate with someone on a watch list, or attract attention for suspicious behavior.

Think of the Virginia Jihad Network, wrapped up and arrested in 2003. Or the four men who wanted to shoot down airliners and blow up synagogues in 2009. Or the five men plotting to attack Fort Dix in 2009. Or those five guys in Occupy Cleveland who plotted to blow up a bridge and attempted to purchase explosives from an undercover FBI agent.

We’ve built a country where it’s extremely difficult for a group of people to plot violence and successfully carry it out.

The bigger a group is, the easier it is to infiltrate, and the easier it is for law enforcement to gather intelligence and intervene before an attack occurs. It is unlikely that anyone in the America of 2017 will be able to gather 200 to 300 people in Flint, Mich., or anywhere else and tout the joys of murder without the authorities learning about it quickly.

Recent history teaches us that, even when only one or two attackers strike, their perception of a “soft target” in the United States does not always match reality. The two aspiring jihadists who attacked the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, managed to wound one police officer before being shot by return fire and killed by a SWAT team responding. An off-duty police officer fatally shot the jihadist who stabbed people at the Crossroads Center shopping mall in Minnesota. The radicalized Ohio State student was shot within two minutes of starting his rampage. These aspiring mass murderers are, almost literally, bringing a knife to a gunfight. No doubt, that’s bad enough, but again — we’re not sinking into chaos. Americans shoot back.

There’s one other point to remember when the horror of an awful event like the Alexandria shooting seems overwhelming and the fear of copycats or of inspiring others to violence feels palpable. We’ve been at this point before, quite recently, and the violence didn’t escalate.

We are approaching the one-year anniversary of an awful sniper-style ambush of police officers in Dallas, where the shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, killed five officers and injured eleven others, including two civilians.

The shooting came less than two weeks before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and numerous authorities and media voices wondered if the convention could be the target of further violence. Everyone had reason for fear: African Americans were angry over a series of police shootings; police felt targeted as they went about their duties; clashes outside Donald Trump campaign rallies had grown increasingly violent. The old Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, the usual black-bloc anarchists — there was no shortage of volatile ingredients in the mix as the conventions began.

And yet . . . both political conventions passed without any significant violence. Most angry Americans backed away from the temptation to do something stupid, reckless, and incendiary. Only 24 people were arrested in Cleveland, and the worst incident involved flag-burning. In Philadelphia, a total of eleven people were detained for attempting to enter restricted areas, but in the end, more than 100 demonstrators were handed citations. Neither convention reminded anyone of the baton-swinging violence in Chicago in 1968; the presidential campaign, and American political life, went on.

Yes, we will have intermittent political violence. People feared widespread violence at President Trump’s inauguration, and indeed protesters smashed storefronts and bus stops, set fire to a limousine, and threw rocks at police. This violence is wrong. But it’s not chaos; it’s not widespread or long-lasting. The enraged let out their inner demons, but it passes like a summer thunderstorm. Authority and order reassert themselves.

For all the flaws of our society, for all the ways our government lets us down, for all the ways we fail to live up to the better angels of our nature, we’ve built a country where it’s extremely difficult for a group of people to plot violence and successfully carry it out. We’re a tougher target than the deranged and the malevolent think.


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