Best of slow journalism: A revolutionary bomb guru looks back

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Photo: AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade

Today it may seem unbelievable, but it wasn’t so long ago that terrorist attacks on American soil were a daily occurrence. As Bryan Burrough points out in his new book, Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, an 18-month period from 1971 to 1972 saw more than 1800 bombings, or nearly five a day.

In an extract for Vanity Fair, Burrough takes a fresh look at the history of the Weather Underground, perhaps the most prominent of the underground radical groups. Early days saw its members debating whether their attacks should aim to kill, and if so, who was a legitimate target. Cops? State employees? Or any American complicit in the Vietnam War?

Former member Cathy Wilkerson survived the group’s most traumatic moment. When Terry Robbins of the New York chapter learned that Wilkerson’s father owned an empty townhouse in Greenwich Village, he insisted they establish a base of operations there. Robbins was planning a bomb attack on a policeman’s ball – it was time to do something big.

His zeal would prove his downfall. On Friday 6th March, the group accidentally detonated their explosives in the basement, completely demolishing the townhouse. Wilkerson and one other member barely escaped with their lives, the rest were crushed under the rubble, or blown to pieces. In spite of this, the group would go on to carry out a seven-year bombing campaign targeting sites like the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and the New York City Police Department.

Over 30 years after the group’s break-up, Burrough gives us an extraordinary insight into a volatile, ideals-driven age for US politics, with interviews from Wilkerson and chief bomb maker Ron Fliegelman. You can read the piece here.

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