The #%& '70s are back! Terrorist bombings on the news was one of those things that gave the '70s their texture. There was also disco, platform shoes, lots of cocaine (most of which financed terrorists), desperate sex and religious epilepsy. But it was news of the Baader-Meinhof, the Italian Brigate Rosse, the Sendero Luminoso, the various Latin American liberation fronts, and the ubiquitous Palestinian terror factions that gave every morning its bitter-flavored news, so well-suited for that first line and the espresso.
There was a moment there, toward the mid-70s, where every region on the globe had a terror group; it was a kind of ideological accoutrement like hip-huggers. We had several of our own in the United States, among them the remnants of the Weather Underground, the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican liberation front, and lots of mini-radicals like the Symbionese Liberation Army, which gave us the memorable image of Patty Hearst with a machine-gun and an Afro. All these groups committed as much terror and mayhem as their pocketbooks allowed. They were also connected, just as Al-Qaeda is now, by a vague ideology that didn't need a central command. The ideology was a hodge-podge of leftist platitudes mixed with a potent dose of nationalism: leftist platitudes rarely explode by themselves; they need nationalism, which is the active ingredient of most populist bombs. The bogeyman then, like now, was American economic and cultural imperialism, and the proper way to fight it was to hide dynamite in the coffee sacks on the back of Juan Valdez's donkey. But whatever you might say about the Maoist-Marxist cells of the '70s, at least you could talk to them in a secular language that sometimes resembled logic. In fact, most members of those groups would have preferred arguing fine points of dialectics instead of blowing things up, but how is a revolutionary to get some respect without terror? There was also the logistical (not logical) support many of them got from Cuba and from the Soviet empire: they had to do something with all that training and paraphernalia. Noblesse oblige. The Palestinians, in particular, were being trained from Romania to Libya and were expected to perform. By the end of the '70s, the combined pressure of the police, the shadow wars by the secret services of many countries, the intense factionalism typical of leftist "fronts," and the economic bankruptcy of their patrons caused these groups to wither away. In another sense, they went out of style, just like other memorable phenomena of the '70s. Some members of the terror cells transitioned to electoral politics and traded in their fatigues for suits and limousines.
The following decades have seen the remnants of these violent gangs metastasize into right-wing religious cells based on a different ideological mix, containing racism, anti-Semitism, and religious conniptions. Al-Qaeda is to the Noughts what Maoism was to the '70s: it provides the fuse to a new style of nut-case. The ideological froth has not improved, but the technology has, somewhat. The terrorists can now communicate as fast as the rest of us, but there is no such thing as a precision-guided donkey.