National Review and Terrorism Revisited

Victims of the church bombing.

If you go over to the website of National Review you’ll find many, many articles about the supposed connections between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers. Ayers is, of course, a onetime member of the Weathermen, a famous (and, it has to be said, very inept) radical terrorist group of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Ayers has never been charged with a crime and the Weathermen were largely a danger to themselves, the fact that he and Obama know each other is said to reflect poorly on the Democratic presidential candidate.

National Review has gone fairly haywire for this story.  One enterprising reader counted up more than 100 articles and blog postings on the National Review website. The obsession with Ayers is easy to understand: it’s the rightwing talking point du jour, nevermind that Obama has condemned Ayers’s Weathermen activities and the New York Times has definitively documented that there is only the most tenuous link between the two men.

Because National Review is going on and on about terrorism, this might be a good occasion to revisit that magazine’s own relationship with political violence. I’ve written on this subject before but the current situation makes it interesting to recall these facts:

1. On September 15, 1963 a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 black girls and injuring many more children. (Those killed were Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair; McNair had been a classmate of the young Condoleezza Rice).  The bomb was set by members of the Klu Klux Klan, as part of a wave of terror designed to intimidate the civil rights movement. Here is how National Review commented on the bombing in the October 1, 1963 issue of their biweekly Bulletin: “The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away form the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.”

So there you have it: barely a whit of sympathy for the murdered children and a quick desire to exonerate “the cause of the white people” and to shift the blame elsewhere, to a suppositious “communist”, to an imaginary “crazed Negro” and to the Supreme Court (guilty of ruling that segregation was unconstitutional). The real perversity of this editorial is worth dwelling on. The church bombing was not an isolated incident; it was part of a long tradition of extra-judicial white supremacist violence that goes back centuries, a pattern anyone familiar with American history knows well. Therefore, in trying to argue that the bombing couldn’t have been done by a white person, the editors were being wilfully obtuse. The purpose of the editorial is to obfuscate the question of guilt and blame the victims of a slaughter for their temerity in standing up for their rights.

2.  In the early 1960s, a renegade band of military men in France tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, after he made it clear that he was going to allow Algeria to become independent. In an editorial published in their May 6, 1961 issue, National Review celebrated the would-be assassins and excoriated the French President. About Maurice Challe, the leader of the putsch, the magazine wrote he “has been, for France, the highest living embodiment of the ideal of the soldier: absolute in courage, skill, dedication, loyalty, self-sacrifice.” (It wasn’t explained how his absolute loyalty was congruent with mutiny). About the coup itself, this excuse was offered: “All normal and legal means having been exhausted, these soldiers … placed their duty to their country, their civilization, and their God above their duty to their commander in chief. By sheer interposition of their united will, they made a desperate and supreme attempt to block the enemy’s advance, and thus save France and Europe, and the Free World from a mortal danger.” This is a pretty explicit defence of assassination as a weapon against a democratically elected leader. As historian Patrick Allitt notes, “This sentiment, expressed side by side with condemnations of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent resistance, bespoke more than a little logical inconsistency.” (Allitt’s comments can be found his well-researched book Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America. 1950-1985, which is also the source for the editorial quoted above).

3. On September 21, 1976 a bomb went off in Washington, DC killing Orlando Letelier (an exiled Chilean diplomat and critic of the Pinochet dictatorship) and his assistant Ronni Moffitt. The bomb had been planted by agents of the Chilean government, who were then engaged in a worldwide effort to assassinate perceived enemies of the regime. National Review, several of whose editors and writers had taken luxurious junkets paid for by the Pinochet government, went out of their way to try and defame Letelier as a communist and suggest (somewhat illogically) that he had been killed by the Cuban government.  On July  15, 1977 the magazine suggested that Letelier had been an “agent of the U.S.S.R.” On September 1, 1978 William F. Buckley wrote that “there are highly reasonable, indeed compelling, grounds for doubting that Pinochet had anything to do with the assassination.” (Written after Pinochet’s bloodthirstiness had already been amply demonstrated). As with the church bombing, the whole point of these editorials and columns was to muddy the water and shift attention away from the guilty.

Let’s sum up here: Barack Obama has condemned Bill Ayers and the Weathermen. National Review has never apologized for its long history of supporting terrorism.

(Note: much of this material is recycled from this earlier posting.)

9 thoughts on “National Review and Terrorism Revisited

  1. In more recent times, National Review also published tearful, whitewashing eulogies for Ferdinand Marcos, Ian Smith (who used anthrax on black rebels), Pinochet himself (a “tragic figure” who “protect[ed] the bases of a modern progressive democracy”) and Jesse Helms, who never met a Latin American dictator, apartheid enforcer or death-squad commander without offering his enthusiastic support.

  2. This post seems to run together two different issues. One is the smear campaign against Obama. These smears are wrong regardless of who they come from. The supposed link to terror would not suddenly become true, for example, if NR apologized for its own history but kept going after Obama, or if the charge were made by someone unaffiliated with NR.

    The other issue is NR’s track record re all the violent incidents you point out. It is often good for institutions to apologize for wrongdoings of the past, as when various politicians have said sorry to aboriginal people in Australia and Canada etc., so I agree that NR should acknowledge its shameful history of whitewashing political violence.

    However, the magazine’s track record here would surely require an apology regardless of what it was saying about Obama today. For this reason, I am reluctant to link the need for an apology to the attack-dog articles against Obama. Doing so risks lending support to the mistaken view that, had NR not started gone on about Obama and the Weathermen, no apology for its past would be necessary. Surely no further grounds for an apology is needed, beyond the hateful nature of the articles themselves.

  3. Not proven, and certainly not in the article you link to. South Africans were experimenting with it, and some may have been used against “enemies” cattle. But not against humans.

  4. Sam,
    What about this article:

    You say “not proven” — but we know:

    1) The South Africans and Rhodesias were conducting experiments with anthrax.

    2) there was an outbreak in Rhodesias in the late 1970s

    3) the outbreak effected only the areas farmed by blacks, not whites

    4) the anthrax killed both cattle and human.

    What more proof do you want? Why are you so eager to defend Ian Smith’s honour?

  5. A. African Americans commit many crimes
    B. New Orleans has a large African American population
    C. My sister’s car was stolen
    D. African Americans stole her car

    Well, no, in fact the police towed it to an impound lot for being illegally parked.

    It’s not to defend Ian Smith, but to defend logic. One started, an epidemic of anthrax couldn’t be controlled. Even white people aren’t that stupid.

    This is useful too (let’s not forget how this has all been used to vilify Hatfill.)

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