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An ex-Weather Underground radical on the Tucson shootings and political violence

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By Mark Rudd
Sunday, January 16, 2011

In 1970, when I was 22 years old - the same age as Jared Loughner - I was a founder of the Weather Underground, an offshoot of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society. That spring, a small contingent of the Weathermen, as we were known, planned to plant three pipe bombs at a noncommissioned officers' dance at Fort Dix, N.J. Our intention was to remind our fellow Americans that our country was dropping napalm and other explosives on Vietnam, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. I wasn't among the bombmakers, but I knew what was in the offing, and to my eternal shame, I didn't try to stop it.

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I considered myself an agent of necessity in a political revolution. I'm not sure if Loughner, who seems to suffer from mental illness, can be considered an agent of anything. But I'm sure that if, as alleged, he pulled the trigger, he had convinced himself that he was doing what needed to be done.

At his age, I had thought myself into a similar corner. My willingness to endorse and engage in violence had something to do with an exaggerated sense of my own importance. I wanted to prove myself as a man - a motive exploited by all armies and terrorist groups. I wanted to be a true revolutionary like my guerrilla hero, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. I wanted the chant we used at demonstrations defending the Black Panthers to be more than just words: "The revolution has come/Time to pick up the gun!"

As the Weather Underground believed in the absolute necessity of bombs to address actual moral grievances such as the Vietnam War and racism, Loughner might have believed in the absolute necessity of a Glock to answer his imagined moral grievances. Violent actors in this country - whether James Earl Ray, Timothy McVeigh or Scott Roeder, who in 2009 killed a Kansas abortion provider - are always armed not just with weapons, but with the conviction that their grievances demand satisfaction and their violence is righteous.

The shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Judge John Roll, Christina Taylor Green and the other victims in that Tucson parking lot was not a means to anything. It was an end in itself. The gunman's goal was undoubtedly existential - an individual committing a horrific act for its own sake.

I doubt that Loughner, sitting in a Tucson jail, gives these matters much thought. I doubt that he cares much about who won the 2010 midterms or who will win the presidency in 2012. I doubt that a man who seems so confused and desperate cares much about ideology. Sarah Palin and her cross-hairs map deserve nothing but ignominy, but the suspect probably didn't worry that liberals would blame conservatives for the shooting or that conservatives would take umbrage at every media accusation. If he's a political actor, he probably doesn't know it.

On March 6, 1970, the Weather Underground's bombs, assembled in a New York townhouse, exploded prematurely. Ted Gold, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins - three brilliant and passionate young people who had decided that they must become terrorists - were killed. Only by their deaths was the greater tragedy we were plotting avoided. Emotionally shattered, I dropped out of the Weather Underground but remained a fugitive until 1977.

After I turned myself in, I spent the next 25 years trying to figure out why I had made so many disastrous decisions as a young man. One of my conclusions was to pursue only nonviolent action - righteous action still, but without anger or brutality.

Like me, Loughner - though he's the product of a different era and may have been motivated only by his madness - could have a long time to consider the logic behind his alleged actions. I only hope that he and those families that were destroyed can find peace.

Mark Rudd, one of the founders of the militant Weather Underground group, is a retired community college instructor and the author of "Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen."

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