Civil Liberties

The Spirit of 1976

The thing that's gotten crazier in America is the way people react to craziness.

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Miriam Carey, RIP

Writing in The Nation, Rick Perlstein contrasts Miriam Carey, the unarmed woman who was shot by police this week after an altercation at the White House gate, with Chester Plummer, the man shot when he scaled the president's fence in 1976. Carey has received much more attention than Plummer did, not just from the press but from the police, about a hundred of whom descended on her apartment to search it after Carey died. "What the hell?" Perlstein writes. "She's dead. She suffered from mad delusions. She had a 1-year-old child in tow. What did they think they were going to find, evidence of credible plans for a coup d'état?"

It's another sign, Perlstein suggests, of "our culture of fear, and how much more frantically we respond to scary stuff than we did in decades past."

Ah, you say, but times have changed. Clearly they have, but not necessarily in the ways you thought. The thing that's gotten crazier in America is the way people react to craziness:

There's terrorism now, they say. But there was terrorism then, nearly every month—eighty-nine bombings attributed by the FBI to terrorism in 1975, culminating in that awful LaGuardia bomb; and a veritable wave in the winter and spring 1976, much of it around the trial of Patty Hearst: of an FBI office in Berkeley, Standard Oil of California headquarters in San Francisco. Americans didn't freak out, or shut down, or exhibit symptoms of PTSD. They had a massive outdoor national 200th birthday party.

My bulletproof vest is chafing me.

There's the threat of presidential assassinations, they say. Of course there is: then, too. In September of 1975 President Ford weathered two attempts on his life in two weeks—the first from a madwoman who claimed her International Tribunal now marked 3,000 people for execution, "if they didn't stop harming the environment and projecting distorted sex images into the media"—though their wives would be "hacked to death" first. Prior to the second one, Ford had taken off his bulletproof vest because he found it too confining. How did he respond to the attempts? He chose to go out in public more. On the second day of Ronald Reagan's campaign to replace him, that November, a 20-year-old from Pompano Beach who had already threatened the lives of the president and the vice-president pulled out what turned to be a toy .45 caliber pistol and was wrestled to the ground by three Secret Service agents.

The following spring the Associated Press reported that the FBI and Secret Service were investigating the testimony of an undercover informant that a "commando-style assassination team" from the San Francisco Bay area was planning attempts on candidate Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford's lives at the Republican convention in Kansas City, "designed to throw the convention into complete chaos." The Chicago Tribune's report contributed the detail, "From the intelligence we have been able to gather, the terror groups want to move their emphasis from bombings to other violent acts in the urban guerrilla handbook, like assassinations and kidnappings." And yet the two party conventions came and went without any particular extra security.

Dammit: My '70s nostalgia is kicking in again.