In the story America likes to tell itself about the 1960s, plucky young protesters donning bell bottoms, long hair, and peace signs challenged the powers of their day to bring racial equality and anti-war rhetoric to the forefront.
They brought about the Civil Rights Act and the end of the Vietnam War. We’re left to look back nostalgically on the 1960s as a time of great societal upheaval that brought many good changes.
There’s a kernel of truth in there if you search for it. But history didn’t end in the 1960s; it marched on as it always does. And when historians talk about the end of the 1960s, they don’t stop in 1969 or 1970. Most historians end the 1960s in October of 1973, when the oil shock hit the world, and when the Yom Kippur War began.
1973 also brings us to the end of the protest era, which didn’t end in peace, love, and happiness. The opposite happened. The most zealous protestors — disillusioned with non-violent demonstrations after experiencing the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and their movements’ perceived failure — became radicalized.
These left-wing extremists launched a domestic terror campaign against America that we’ve largely forgotten. But if it happened today, it would dominate every aspect of our society.
Out of the ashes of non-violence protests came extreme violence. “Nearly a dozen radical underground groups, dimly remembered outfits such as the Weather Underground, the New World Liberation Front, and the Symbionese Liberation Army, set off hundreds of bombs during that tumultuous decade — so many, in fact, that many people all but accepted them as a part of daily life,” TIME magazine reported in 2016.
The radicalization and disillusionment started simple and grew in its fierceness. As TIME reported:
They had begun as crude, simple things, mostly Molotov cocktails college radicals hurled toward ROTC buildings during the late 1960s. The first actual bombing campaign, the work of a group of New York City radicals led by a militant named Sam Melville, featured attacks on a dozen buildings around Manhattan between August and November 1969, when Melville and most of his pals were arrested.
Weather’s attacks began three months later, and by 1971 protest bombings had spread across the country. In a single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day.
According to TIME, “[n]ews accounts rarely carried any expression or indication of public outrage.” These domestic terrorists just became another part of daily life. They were part of the skyrocketing crime rate that led to Richard Nixon’s infamous law and order campaign, which he used to win landslide elections.
The protests of our time have started with comparable weapons. We see the occasional Molotov cocktail, and things like bricks and fireworks sent toward police. Protesters in Portland, Oregon have used green lasers in attempts to blind police and other authority figures.
But the time of peaceful protests is over. We appeared to have crossed some Rubicon on violence. It’s no longer the thoughtless destruction of property — often of white progressives destroying minority communities. Now, it’s armed protesters killing each other.
It’s not killings within a group; now, the two sides are targeting each other.
First, we had the shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse has been tracked shooting and killing multiple people. He may have a self-defense claim, but there’s little reason for a teenager like him to have been there, casually open-carrying a firearm, in a dangerous situation like that, with little experience or training.
And now, just days later, we have another shooting in Portland, where numerous clashes took place between the far-left anarchists who have taken over multiple segments of the city and supporters of Donald Trump who paraded through the streets to antagonize them.
Early evidence, looking at videos of the event, suggests a potential for a politically motivated killing. And even if it wasn’t, the leftist crowd cheered news of the killing, and they are encouraging more like it.
In previous months, violent crimes like homicide and sexual assault occurred among group members. We saw this with the CHAZ/CHOP situation in Seattle; people were harming others within their group.
Now, it’s left and right targeting each other in ever-escalating clashes. People have gone from trying to troll their political enemies to outright violence.
Americans do not grasp, nor do they remember, the violence we’ve inflicted on each other as a nation. People casually toss around words like fascist or socialist without knowing what those terms mean or what they look like.
We live in the most prosperous and peaceful era human history has ever known. But the potent political forces at play right now are being fanned, and we’re spiraling downward into deep darkness. These events have little to do with political parties, because they are the decisions of individuals to act and react with increasing insanity and intensity.
Whatever qualms I had before on using the U.S. military to quell these riots are gone. Stern speeches decrying this violence will do nothing. Our moment demands action to end these riots and quash the radicalized spirit within them.
These events are no longer about reforming police or seeking justice for bad actors — we’re racing toward domestic terrorism. That cannot stand, from any group, party, or ideology.
America is wobbling on a precipice right now. Events are working overtime to push us over the edge to explore the depths of our violent antagonism toward those we deem political enemies. We’ve been at this place in the past, but with social media, this new wave of violence will appear far closer to home and radicalize others. It won’t be easily dismissed. We either squash it now or suffer the consequences of the increasing radicalization of our politics.
The time for speeches is over. It’s time for action.