I’ve finished reading Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, following a tip from David Hines. It’s an excellent detailed history of the American radical underground during “the long 1970s”. The details that Burrough provide will be interesting to anybody who does research on the mechanisms and dynamics of political violence.

It also tells us a lot about where we are in 2017 and what to expect in the coming months.

The wave of political violence in America of the 1970s followed a fairly typical course, familiar to me from reading the histories of disintegrative periods in past societies. In my research I have used models of epidemics and forest fires to understand these dynamics (for readers with a mathematical bend, the details are in Chapter 2 of Ages of Discord, but I also talk about this in War and Peace and War using non-technical language).

Here’s how an epidemic of political violence typically develops—and then dies out. I will use the Weather Underground, the best known and most influential American terrorist group of the 1970s, to illustrate the key transitions. But it’s worth emphasizing that the overall dynamic is quite general. It thus provides us with a kind of a road map as to what to expect in the next few years.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Phase 1. The days of rage. There is little serious violence (the kind that leads to deaths), but this is the phase when verbal violence escalates. People belonging to various groups demonize their enemies and increasingly call for their destruction. This is when the boundaries are established and fault lines deepen. During the Sixties the main faultline was between the Radical Left and the Establishment (really, the state and the governing elites). The issues motivating the radicals were the opposition to Vietnam War, draft resistance, oppression of African-Americans, poverty, and corporate greed. The most important dynamic during this phase is the crystallization and radicalization of the cohesive, “fused” (to use the term favored by my colleague Harvey Whitehouse) groups that will later spearhead actual violence. The escalation of verbal violence leads to the breakdown of social norms that guard against physical violence. In simpler words, it’s when the rage boils over and it becomes acceptable to kill other people, if they are on the other side of the barricades.

Phase 2. The triggers. These are specific, highly symbolic events that are needed to translate the rage into action. The most frequent triggers are “sacrifical victims”. This could be a self-sacrifice (such as the self-immolation of that fruit vendor in Tunisia), but more frequently the sacrifical victim is killed almost by accident.

The triggering event that transformed the Weathermen into a terrorist organization was the murder of Fred Hampton. By all accounts, it was an extrajudicial execution of a highly charismatic and popular activist and Black Panther leader by the Chicago police/FBI. Hampton became a martyr for the anti-racism movement, and his murder persuaded the Weathermen to go underground.

Phase 3. The spiral of violence. The first victims must be avenged, which creates more martyrs and triggers a chain of revenge and counter-revenge. It’s surprising how personal were the motives that drove the majority of “actions” by the Weather Underground (and also by Black Liberation Army). This dynamic of revenge and counter-revenge is very similar to how tribal warfare in small-scale societies develops.

Phase 4. Burn-out. Eventually most people get tired or even sick of incessant and unproductive violence. The most violent individuals are killed off, or imprisoned, or lose support. Having experienced violence at first hand most people are repelled by it; the population becomes “immunized” to the spread of ideologies that glorify violence. Phase 4, thus, is the opposite of Phase 1; it’s when the Rage subsides. As the Rage goes away, violence declines, and so does the need to avenge it. The spiral of violence unwinds in the opposite direction. But the critical change is in the social mood of the majority of the population, who turn against violence. At the same time the radicals themselves become tired of it too, or are simply decimated. The BLA was decimated, they simply lost the war against the state apparauts. The Weather Underground was partly decimated, but most of its leaders, like Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, were not killed or imprisoned; they simply gave up after seeing the futility of further violence.

According to a Mao’s dictum,

Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together?

But Weather Underground (and other terrorist organizations of the 1970s, especially BLA) were like fish flopping on the shore. The overwhelming majority of Americans were against them. The radicals’ supporters numbered only in thousands, and by the end of the decade in hundreds. Ordinary Americans readily reported any suspicious activities to the authorities. When a policeman was down, passing motorists stopped to give them aid and called for help on the police radios. The BLA, a much more violent organization than the WU (they robbed banks and killed cops), was ground up in a matter of months by the FBI with the help of broad popular support.

All this history is very relevant to us today. Currently we are going through Phase I, “the Days of Rage.” There are also significant differences between the coming violence spike of 2020, and the 1970 one, but that’s a subject for another post.