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The Future for a Radical

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

WASHINGTON -- They are beginning to die out or, at least, to retire. So long, suckers. Surely the Clintons, Sen. Jean-Francois Kerry, Al Gore and dozens of others who presented themselves as reasonable alternatives to the radicals of the 1960s thought they were suckers. I thought about all of them this week as problems mounted for Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks thief.

Late in June, death took Dwight Armstrong, the anti-Vietnam War protester who blew up a building at the University of Wisconsin, killing an innocent physics researcher, Robert Fassnacht. I always have wondered about Fassnacht. He supposedly was opposed to the Vietnam War, too. I wonder what his life would have been like if he had not been in the building at the time the bomb went off. Armstrong and his accomplices eventually were caught. None had much promise, but there was a tremendous legitimacy to them at first, at least in comparison with those of us who favored the war.

Armstrong was sentenced to concurrent seven-year terms in prison and was paroled in 1980. On a less idealistic note, he later was apprehended for running a methamphetamine lab in Indiana and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He lived his last years driving a cab and caring for his mother. "My life," he told Madison's Capital Times, "has not been something to write home about." Well, maybe at the end, the light began to dawn.

Then there was Fritz Teufel, who turned room temperature July 6. He began his career less spectacularly. Auspicating it as a "fun guerrilla," the German equivalent of Abbie Hoffman (a suicide) and Jerry Rubin (death by jaywalking) demonstrated against the Shah of Iran and planned to ambush Hubert H. Humphrey with cake-mix "bombs." His politics were 1 part Maoism and an equal part psychoanalysis. He claimed to resent his parents' softness toward Nazism. It led him to softness toward Mao. In time, he moved to Munich and joined a radical commune, eventually enlisting in the Red Army Faction, which carried out assassinations, bombings and kidnappings. He spent a couple of years in prison in the early 1970s. In 1975, he spent another stretch in prison. He devoted his last years to giving interviews to journalists nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, but first his guests had to play him in table tennis.

Now we are told that Bill Ayers is going to retire from the University of Illinois' Chicago campus. Ayers was a co-founder of the radical -- today we would say terrorist -- Weather Underground, which, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, engaged in quite a lot of political activism that involved bombs, as well as street demonstrations and other acts of violence. Ayers was involved in blowing up a statue dedicated to police casualties in the 1886 Haymarket riot -- twice. I take that personally, for my great-grandfather was, for many years, the sole survivor of that riot. As a little boy, I was chosen by the Chicago Police Department to place a wreath on the monument. Today I have a splendid picture of the monument in my office.

Ayers went on to other bombings, for instance at the New York City Police Department, the United States Capitol and the Pentagon. He recalled these acts and others in spectacularly ill-timed memoirs, "Fugitive Days," which came out Sept. 10, 2001. We all know what happened a day later. When The New York Times quoted him as saying "I don't regret setting bombs" and "I feel we didn't do enough," he relied on his formidable gifts at obfuscation to argue that he was talking about peaceful ways to end the Vietnam War, though what they might have been is unclear. All we know is that he relied mostly on bombs, and several of his colleagues blew themselves up making them. Perhaps in retirement he will explain.

Which brings me to Assange. He published last month 76,000 documents classified by the U.S. military about the war in Afghanistan. The left views this act as hugely legitimate. Undoubtedly, soldiers and other friends of democracy have been killed and will be killed because of it, but Assange promises more documents. Also, he says this talk of his molesting women is a dirty trick, and he hints darkly at the Pentagon. Will Assange come out of it looking like a Dwight Armstrong or a Bill Ayers? Will he perhaps manage to appear reasonable and go into legitimate politics? It is too early to tell. All we know is that history works in mysterious ways. Some become footnotes, others presidential candidates.

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