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Sunday, July 13, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Sterling Hall bombing's ripple effects are still being felt 40 years later
Blowing up the peace movement

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The Sterling Hall bombing that rocked Madison, killed physics researcher Robert Fassnacht, and blew apart the peace movement happened 40 years ago, on Aug. 24, 1970.

For my parents and their friends, who were living in a graduate student commune at the time, protesting the Vietnam War, helping to launch the Mifflin Street Co-op, and leading life with that combination of exuberance and high seriousness characteristic of people in their early 20s, it was the end of a dream.

My mother describes the shock and paralysis that followed that violent explosion. "I really believed that the revolution was coming," she says. "And then, when that happened, we just said, 'Oh no. Oh, no no no.' Everything came to a grinding halt. No one could do anything for a while. It was just the end."

Idealism collided with violence. For people like my mom, it was the dividing line between an expansive, optimistic era and a time of dark disillusionment.

A lot has been written about those days in Madison. Reading the historical record now, it's striking how much the arguments of that era sound like the war of words that followed another, very different terrorist attack that collapsed a building and shocked the nation - when planes flew into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

In both instances, some people tried to put a gruesome act into political context, saying what the United States government was doing at the time was so awful it brought on this violent response. And that brought an inevitable backlash from people disgusted by what seemed like justifications of terrorism.

And then there was the government response: more spying, a jaded, suspicious, us-and-them attitude toward anyone who seemed to hold dissident views.

As the late Howard Zinn often pointed out, the anti-Vietnam War movement was, by and large, peaceful. The Sterling Hall bombing was the exception. And even there, the bombers planned their attack in the middle of the night, when the building was supposed to be empty - a far cry from the deliberate murder of 3,000 World Trade Center workers nine years ago.

Both acts of violence have had a ripple effect through time, generating anger and disillusionment and killing hope. And, clearly, neither of these dramatic acts of violence changed U.S. policy for the better.

After the Sterling Hall bombing, President Nixon stepped up the secret domestic spy program COINTELPRO, and the war dragged on for three more years. The CIA torture techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan, like waterboarding, are hardly an improvement on the nasty business of pushing people out of helicopters in Vietnam.

The specific research conducted at the Army Math center at Sterling Hall, which helped the counterinsurgency effort in Vietnam, ended for a while. But now the UW is partners with the military again, sharing information and offering online military-related courses to soldiers in the field. And the CIA is back recruiting on campus.

In some ways our country finally left behind the trauma of the Vietnam era when Obama took office and the baby-boom presidents, Clinton and George W. Bush, left the stage.

But we have new forms of divisive politics now. The angry protesters drawing crowds around the country this summer are not offering any utopian visions of peace. Instead, they are targeting ethnic minorities: Latino immigrants and Muslims. The movement against the so-called Ground Zero mosque (actually, the planned mosque and community center is a few blocks away from the former site of the Twin Towers) has morphed into an ugly, nationwide showdown outside Muslim places of worship.

The peace movement, meanwhile, seems muted and unsure. An apologetic "support the troops" message seeks to salve Vietnam's wounds, even as our government pursues new illegal and immoral wars. There is a scattered, unfocused feeling about peace marches I've been to - as if the splintering of the movement 40 years ago were still affecting people today.

The most compelling reaction to the Sterling Hall bombing, to me, is still my mom's visceral response.

She used to tell me the story of when I was a baby, and she was alone on Mifflin Street, holding me in her arms, when the police drove by and tear-gassed us both.

It was, in many ways, an ugly, scary, alienating time. That so many people responded with an optimistically energetic, peaceful vision for an alternative society still inspires me. Going down the other road - of violence and reprisal - only leads to a dead end.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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