This week in terrorism history: Oct. 3-9

Flag of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (Credit: Wikidata)

This week’s look back at the history of American terrorism provides a snapshot of some of the most common motivations for political violence, both in the United States and more generally. From this single week in 1977 we get examples of right-wing white supremacist terrorism, New Left revolutionary terrorism, ethnographic-nationalist terrorism, and religious terrorism.

In a 2004 publication, terrorism scholar David C. Rapoport proposed a framework for conceptualizing patterns of continuity and change in global terrorism. (You can read it here.) What he identifies are four “waves” of terrorism in the modern era, each lasting approximately a generation and characterized by a dominant (though not the only) motivating energy.

Rapoport identifies the first, “Anarchist,” wave as beginning in the 1880s, followed by a second “Anti-colonial” wave in the 1920s, a third “New Left” wave in the 1960s, and a fourth “Religious” wave beginning in the 1990s. In an article published earlier this year, Rapoport suggests we are now in a fifth “Right Wing” wave which began in the mid-2000s. You’ll note that the four attacks described below fit comfortably with these characterizations.

On to this week’s look back.

  • Oct. 3, 1977 — Los Angeles: The Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia plants a bomb at the home of historian Stanford Shaw in an unsuccessful assassination attempt. Shaw, a professor at UCLA, was best known for his work on the Ottoman Empire, but he received considerable criticism for a perceived pro-Turkish bias in his work and his denial of the Armenian genocide. ASALA, one of several pro-Armenian terrorist organizations active in the United States, was organized in 1975 with the primary objective of forcing Turkey to admit responsibility for the Armenian genocide of 1915. The group carried out nearly 200 attacks in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East between 1975 and 1997.
  • Oct. 6, 1977 – Seattle: A firebomb is planted at a Buick car dealership, but fails to detonate. The device was comprised of a white plastic timer, a gallon bottle of gasoline and sulfuric acid, wrapped in cheesecloth soaked with a potassium chlorate solution. In a communique released several days later, the George Jackson Brigade said the dealership was targeted because its owner was the head of the King County Automobile Dealers’ Association. The George Jackson Brigade was a leftist revolutionary organization formed in the mid 1970s and carried out a range of attacks on government and business targets between 1975 and 1977.
  • Oct. 8, 1977 — Los Angeles: Members of the group Jewish Armed Resistance bomb the Beth Sar Shalom Religious Center, a liberal Jewish temple in North Hollywood. In a letter sent after the attack, JAR claimed responsibility and said the motive for the bombing was opposition to the synagogue’s too liberal stance on anti-Semitism.
  • Oct. 8, 1977 — Richmond Heights, MO: Joseph Paul Franklin, a notorious white supremacist serial killer, fires five shots into a crowd of people leaving a Bar Mitzvah at the Brith Shalom Kneseth Israel Congregation synagogue, killing one and wounding two others. Franklin spent several days before the attack scouting synagogues in the St. Louis area before settling on the location for his attack, chosen because he could fire from concealment. He fled the scene on a bicycle. Franklin, who was a member of both the Neo-Nazi National Socialist White Peoples Party and the Ku Klux Klan, carried out a series of anti-Semitic and racist attacks between 1977 and his arrest in 1980. He was convicted of several murders, leading to five life sentences and two death sentences. He later confessed to the attempted assassination of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. Franklin was executed by lethal injection in 2013.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 26-Oct. 2

White supremacist terrorist Byron De La Beckwith (Credit: Associated Press)

This week’s look back at the recent history of terrorism in the United States is an excellent example of the some of the trends that we continue to see when it comes to political violence in America. One that I want to highlight here is radicalization and terrorism linked to current and former members of the US military.

An April 2021 report produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies shines a spotlight on military and law enforcement involvement in domestic terrorism. As the report points out:

Individuals with a military or law enforcement background have skills that extremists want – such as proficiency in firing weapons, building explosive devices, conducting surveillance and reconnaissance, training personnel, practicing operational security, and performing other types of activities.

As with so much when it comes to terrorism in America, this is nothing new. For example, in 2008 white supremacist leaders were reported to be aggressively working to recruit active-duty members of the military and recent combat veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Several years earlier, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups were encouraging their members to enlist in the US military for the explicit purpose of acquiring the skills they would need to wage war at home. In the mid 1980s the US military realized it had a problem with far right radicalization in the combat arms of both the US Army and Marine Corps, and sought to purge the ranks of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

This is a phenomenon I’ve written about before in this space. Several times.

For example, Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who in 2012 murdered six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Page, a committed white supremacist, was killed by a local police officer, ending his rampage at the temple.

Or Army and Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people including 19 children. He was sentenced to death and in June 2001 was executed by lethal injection. McVeigh’s was the single deadliest act of terrorism in American history prior to 9/11, and remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism we’ve ever experienced.

Or active-duty Coast Guard officer Christoper Hasson, who was accused by federal prosecutors of plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” in order to trigger a white nationalist revolution. He pleaded guilty to drug and weapons charges and is currently serving time in federal prison.

This brings us to the perpetrator of one of the historical terrorist incidents highlighted this week, Byron De La Beckwith, who in 1963 assassinated NAACP and civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Like the terrorists mentioned above, De La Beckwith was also a veteran of the US military.

In January 1942, De La Beckwith enlisted in the US Marine Corps, and subsequently served as a machine gunner in the Pacific theater in World War II. He fought in the brutal battles of Guadalcanal and Tarawa, where he was wounded. He was honorably discharged at the war’s end.

De La Beckwith eventually returned home to Mississippi, and 1954 plunged into white supremacist activism in response to the Supreme Court’s order ending racial segregation in public schools. He joined his local White Citizens’ Council, a racist organization founded to fight desegregation which at its peak boasted more than 60,000 members, and then the Ku Klux Klan.

The state of Mississippi twice in 1964 tried De La Beckwith for the murder of Evers. Both trials ending in hung juries. In the years after his unsuccessful prosecutions De La Beckwith went on to identify with a movement called the Phineas Priesthood, an offshoot of the white supremacist Christian Identity movement, which claims that those of white Anglo-Saxon and Nordic blood are the true children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and thus are the real descendants of the Israelites, making them, not Jews, God’s chosen people.

He was finally convicted of Evers’ assassination in 1994 and spent the rest of his life in prison, dying of heart disease and other ailments in January 2001. But before his conviction and imprisonment, De La Beckwith continued to participate in white supremacist activism and terrorism. As we see below.

  • Sept. 26, 1973 – New Orleans: De La Beckwith is stopped and arrested at a police checkpoint on Interstate 10 as he was driving across a bridge into New Orleans. In his car was a ticking time bomb, firearms, and a map with highlighted directions to the home of A.I. Botnick, the head of the New Orleans-based B’nai B’rith Anti Defamation League. De La Beckwith had been under surveillance for several days after informants tipped the FBI that he was plotting to assassinate Botnick in retaliation for statements Botnick had made about white Southerners and race relations. In 1975 De La Beckwith was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in the case but was subsequently paroled in 1980.
  • Sept. 28, 1973 – New York City: The Weather Underground claims responsibility for the bombing of the offices of International Telephone and Telegraph’s Latin American operations. In a call to the offices of The New York Times 20 minutes before the blast, the caller identified himself as the Weather Underground and said the bomb would go off in retaliation for I.T.T. “crimes they committed against Chile.” I.T.T., a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate was widely viewed by Weather and other leftist groups as a symbol of United States exploitation of Latin America.

Music for a Friday: Lined-out hymnody

I’m going to warn you now, this post is even more esoteric than usual. But it is a diversion from the usual seriousness on display here, so bear with me.

I want to introduce you to a very old and now rare American tradition with roots in Scotland, still practiced by church communities in places like Alabama, Kentucky, and Oklahoma who are bound together by shared faith and musical inheritance.

It’s called lined-out hymn singing, a call-and-response form of sacred song whose roots in this country can be traced to the Scots tradition of a cappella Gaelic psalm singing which can still be heard in the remote and isolated communities of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, especially the Isle of Lewis.

It is a precursor to the obscure form of group a cappella singing that I do, shape-note singing from a hymnal called The Sacred Harp. I’ve written about this before in this space.

It is frankly hard to describe the sound of lined-out singing. It is haunting and raw, almost primitive in its intensity. This is literal hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck music.

I have never heard it in person, though some of the folk that I sing with when I travel to Alabama for Sacred Harp singings (back in nearly forgotten pre-pandemic times when such things were still possible) also sing lined-out hymns or psalms. Apparently if you’ve seen the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter, you can find lining-out depicted at her father’s funeral.

Apparently the music, once common in 17th and 18th century Britain and America, fell victim to disputes about what music was appropriately edifying for singing in church. You can dig deeper into the “controversy” as it played out in Puritan New England here.

I’ve only experienced this tradition through recordings and videos found on YouTube. But it turns out that there is a fantastic short documentary from Yale University that digs deep into the music and the communities that still sing it – Hebridean islanders, a Black congregation from Alabama, a White congregation from Kentucky, and a Muskogee Creek congregation from Oklahoma who brought the music west with them on the Trail of Tears.

The documentary is called “A Conjoining of Ancient Song,” and you can watch it below. Here’s the introduction to the film, posted at Vimeo:

A special Yale documentary retraces the trajectory of a rapidly eroding form of congregational singing out of Scotland and into African American, Native American, and white American religious song traditions. The Yale Institute of Sacred Music, one of the film’s sponsors, organized a first screening at the University in April 2013, and offers it to the public here.

The renowned jazz musician and ethnomusicologist Willie Ruff began his journey began several years ago, when he followed up on his friend Dizzy Gillespie’s claim that some remote African American congregations in the Deep South sang hymns in Gaelic, according to Ruff’s website. Consulting The Massachusetts Bay Colony Psalm Book from 1640 in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, he found that the form, in which one church member calls out the first line of a Psalm and the rest of the congregation continues to chant the text in unison, had been a common worship practice in Colonial America. Pursuing the inquiry, Ruff made the startling discovery that this call-and-response service, chanted by descendants of African slaves in the American South and by white congregations in remote churches of Appalachia, was actually still intoned in Gaelic in its original form in Scotland’s remote and culturally isolated Outer Hebrides.

In 2005, he organized an international conference at Yale, bringing together a few of the almost extinct congregations still practicing the ancient line-singing tradition. The Free Church Psalm Singers of the Isle of Lewis, Scotland; the Indian Bottom Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky; and the Sipsey River Primitive Baptist Association of Eutaw, Alabama, came to perform a shared service that had adapted over generations to their diverse idioms. In the course of that conference, he learned that the tradition extended to the Muskogee Creeks in Oklahoma as well, and two years later, Ruff, who traces his own lineage back to the crossroads of races and cultures represented in the unusual custom, organized a second conference at Yale to gather Native American, African American and Appalachian line-singers together for the first time. 

The 30-minute documentary “A Conjoining of Ancient Song” is the story of Willie Ruff’s journey connecting Gaelic psalm singing and American Music. 

It is a wonderful film, with haunting music and profound emotion. The academics are, at times, well, too academic. But the real people who sing this music, and the connections they have with each other, bonds of faith, fellowship, and tradition, are deeply touching.

20 years of 9/11 is enough

I am done with commemorations of 9/11. I have been done with them for a very long time.

I’m going to cut to the chase here. I have never felt an emotional response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Not on the day it happened. Nor on any of the increasingly fetishized, politically and emotionally manipulative annual commemorations that we inflict upon ourselves year after year.

For me these ritualized remembrances ring hollow. Our self-pitying refrain of “no one has suffered from terrorism the way we have” smacks of the most offensive kind of American exceptionalism. We claim from societies that have long suffered from terrorism the mantle of victim-in-chief. And I am tired of it.

I know this is a sentiment that is out of step with many. 9/11 and its commemoration does not resonate with me the way that it does for others. I have always, from the moment it happened, thought about it only in academic, analytical, terms. I can tell you exactly how I came to that point.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, at the moment the first airliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I was sitting in my office at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., preparing to teach a class later that morning. There was an initial news report that suggested a small plane had accidentally crashed into the building, which I payed little attention to. I had no radio in my office, and when internet connectivity slowed markedly and then was lost altogether, I shrugged my shoulders and went about my work.

Then the phone rang. It was just after 10:30 a.m. and my wife, badly shaken and in tears, was calling to tell me that the towers had collapsed. And that I needed to get to a television.

I made my way to the student center, saw live images of the smoking heaps of rubble, learned that the South Tower had also been hit and fallen. And the Pentagon. And that a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And it was time to go to class.

My students were, of course, full of questions. Who could have done it? Why? Will there be more attacks? Having spent a fair portion of my time in graduate school studying terrorism, I had answers.

I asked my students to consider the meaning of the target selections, symbolic representations of American economic, military, and political power. I asked them to consider the methodology of the attacks, sophisticated, well-planned, and coordinated suicide operations. Given the combination of meaning and methodology on display, I told them that the most likely perpetrators were al Qaeda, the only organization I knew of that had demonstrated the necessary capability coupled with the determination to attack American interests. Follow-on attacks, I thought, were highly likely.

We took a moment or two to refocus and gather our thoughts, and then I taught my scheduled lesson on international economic development.

By the time I got home that night, my initial speculation had been confirmed, and that, thankfully, no secondary attacks had occurred. I also found that my wife was deeply, deeply affected. Because, unlike me, she watched everything, live, as it happened. She saw the second plane hit the South Tower. She watched people leaping to their deaths to escape the intense flames. She watched lines of cops and firefighters filing into the buildings in an effort to find and evacuate survivors. And she watched those towers collapse, obliterating their lives.

I saw none of it in real time. What I saw was how the attacks had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the plotters. I saw how the golden ring that every terrorist organization reaches for, unlimited attention to themselves and their cause, was delivered by the wall-to-wall media coverage the attacks generated. Every network. Every channel. MTV. Home Shopping. ESPN. Video of the planes hitting and the towers collapsing on an endless loop. Talking heads naming al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and explaining to their audience why they would have the United States in their crosshairs. For days, and days, and days after.

This is my frame of reference for 9/11. This is how I talk about it with my students, who today are too young to have any memory of the day but who have grown up with its consequences. And what consequences.

The stoking of existential fear of terrorism by what scholar John Mueller has called “the terrorism industry” — security and defense contractors, media conglomerates, think tanks and research centers, pols and policymakers — which profits from that fear and leverages it to advance policy objectives the American public would otherwise never countenance. Like the creation of a surveillance state and erosion of our civil liberties at home. Like the abandonment of our core values and the embrace of torture and indefinite imprisonment of “enemy combatants” held without charge or trial. Like an open-ended authorization for two decades of American presidents to wage war anywhere on earth so long as they can draw a line, no matter how tenuous, to the events of 9/11 and those who carried out the attacks.

But wait, there’s more. Because 9/11 also unleashed suspicion and fear of our fellow Americans simply because of their Muslim faith. And with that fear and suspicion came discrimination, hate, and violence. That fear and suspicion led us to turn our backs on immigrants and refugees from majority Muslim countries. For many Americans, the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” became synonymous. Because of 9/11.

The celebrated unity of the first few days after 9/11 quickly gave way to division as the attacks were politicized and leveraged for partisan advantage by cynical and ambitious parties and politicians. To question the policy responses to 9/11, or to decry the discrimination and hatred directed against our Muslim neighbors, was to be unpatriotic, to undermine America, to side with and give comfort to our enemies.

We are not unique. Other countries have suffered far more from terrorism than we have. We have ignored, and continue to ignore the reality that 9/11 was the exception not the rule about terrorism in America. The rule about terrorism in America is 160 years of Americans turning their guns and bombs against fellow Americans in the name of causes deeply embedded in American culture, society, and politics.

Sept. 11, 2001 bestowed upon us no special virtue, no privileged claim of unique victimization that should have empowered us to lead a global war on terror which adversaries like China seized upon to justify genocidal campaigns against their own Muslim minorities.

And yet, in our arrogance, we did claim those things. And we did, and continue to do, all these things. And every September, on the 11th day of the month, we wrap ourselves in flags and ritually remind ourselves of our own pain and suffering while refusing to confront the consequences of our response.

That’s why I’m done with 9/11 commemoration.