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Death of a Terrorist

From the Scrapbook

Jul 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 40
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There was a very brief, one column/two-inch obituary in the Washington Post last week, which caught our attention: “Dwight Armstrong,” the headline read. And then the sub-headline: “Vietnam War Protester.” A slight chill went down the spine of The Scrapbook.

Death of a Terrorist

Sterling Hall, University of Wisconsin

Of course, everybody knows that Vietnam war protesters were shaggy-haired kids who marched with signs and chanted, pretended to “levitate” the Pentagon, faced down National Guardsmen, or burned symbolic draft cards and flashed the peace sign in a crusade to force the withdrawal of American troops from Southeast Asia. Most went back to school once the draft ended, the troops were withdrawn, and South Vietnam fell. Some ended up in politics, or as public defenders or environmental activists, or teaching philosophy, getting married, raising kids, earning a living​—but always with that little flame of idealism still burning.

Well, if Dwight Armstrong was a “Vietnam War Protester” then Major Nidal Malik Hasan should be known to posterity as a “Fort Hood Psychiatrist.” Armstrong was, in fact, a dropout/drifter and left-wing activist who, in 1970 with his brother Karl and two friends, parked a stolen van packed with explosives and jet fuel beside a laboratory building at the University of Wisconsin, and lit the fuse. The resulting explosion killed a young student-researcher named Robert Fassnacht and injured three other people.

Armstrong became a fugitive but was captured in Canada in 1977, tried and convicted, and served a total of seven years in federal prison. He died of lung cancer at 58 in the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, not far from the scene of his now largely forgotten crime.

It is often suggested that race—a reaction to the civil rights movement of the 1960s—was the predominant cause of a rightward shift in American politics in the 1970s and ’80s. Of course, race has always played a role in shaping the national mood; but it is useful to remember that many things happened in American society of that era, and among them were periodic breakdowns in the social and political order, destructive urban riots, and a radical antiwar movement that nurtured a certain amount of violence and murder. The antiwar movement was predominantly peaceful, of course; but it is important to remember that violence—vandalism, armed assaults, bombings—was part of the movement as well, and that made a deep impression on Americans at the time. 

The late Dwight Armstrong was not a Vietnam war protester; he was a domestic terrorist and unrepentant killer who paid a small price for a calculated act of cruelty, and assault on a great American university. Robert Fassnacht, R.I.P.

The Post’s Idea of a Conservative

When the Washington Post hired Dave Weigel to produce a reported blog on conservatives and Republicans, management apparently did so because they were under the misimpression that Weigel is a conservative, or at least a libertarian who’s not hostile to conservatives and their ideas. In an online chat, the Post’s national editor, Kevin Merida, was asked whether the newspaper planned to hire any conservatives to balance its growing stable of left-wing opinion reporters. Merida noted that the Post had “added to our staff the well-regarded Dave Weigel” and mentioned the paper’s handful of right-leaning columnists.

So what kind of balance did Weigel provide? Not much. Weigel was a member of a now-defunct 400-person email group known as JournoList. The politics of the group were decidedly left-wing, and although the messages they sent each other were supposed to be off-the-record—well, we are talking about 400 snarky lefties. Leaks happen. In this case, a smattering of Weigel’s emails ended up being published on two websites, FishbowlDC and the Daily Caller.

They showed Weigel to be a proponent of the tired old all-Republicans-are-racists trope. He accused the party of protecting “white privilege” and of using the media to “violently, angrily divide America.” He also complained about his beat. “Honestly, it’s been tough to find fresh angles sometimes—how many times can I report that these [tea party] activists are joyfully signing up with the agenda of discredited right-winger X and discredited right-wing group Y?”

There was standard-issue liberal name-calling: Newt Gingrich is an “amoral blowhard,” Rush Limbaugh should drop dead of a heart attack,  Matt Drudge is an “amoral shut-in” who should “set himself on fire”—in short, the kind of playground bluster that passes for wit in liberal circles (and, for that matter, got Al Franken elected to the U.S. Senate).

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