THE DEATH OF DIANA OUGHTON
“Isn't it much better for people to work for the good of everybody?” asked Diana a few days before she blew herself up.
Today we are bewildered at the spectacle of middle-class young people abandoning their comfortable life-style to join Middle East terrorists. What could possess them? Perhaps the story of Diana Oughton could provide some insight into this seemingly incomprehensible behavior.
Not every terrorist can be dismissed as a gangster or nihilist thrillseeker. Diana Oughton, a member of the violent Weatherman faction of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), was an idealist who believed fervently in the justice of her cause. And in a New York City townhouse in 1970 she was blown to bits while fashioning bombs wrapped in nail-studded tape.
The violence of the New Left has today been largely repudiated, even by most of its former practitioners. However, the vision which inspired it – the view of capitalism as world-wide exploiter of the poor – continues to be a dominant theme of intellectual and political debate. Accordingly, the perceptions which brought Diana to that townhouse are as relevant today as they were then.
One of the more intriguing aspects of political terrorism is the “affluent revolutionary” - the person who would presumably have the least to gain and the most to lose from the upheaval he espouses. The Weathermen were mostly from solid, conservative families, and so were most of the SLA (the group which kidnapped Patty Hearst). The Baader-Meinhoff gang of West Germany and the Red Brigades of Italy have also been comprised primarily of well-educated people from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Diana, from a wealthy and close-knit family in Dwight, Illinois, would seem an equally unlikely convert to revolutionary terrorism.
After attending public school through the ninth grade in Dwight, Diana attended the exclusive Madeira School in Virginia, followed by the equally exclusive Bryn Mawr Women's College outside of Philadelphia. Recalls one young man who knew her, “It wasn't that she was particulary beautiful; she had a round face and a funny nose, but she was so sharp and kind of glowing that everyone fell half in love with her..." 1 But Diana was starting to develop a different set of interests.
During her last year at Bryn Mawr, Diana joined a reading tutoring program for black children in Philadelphia. Volunteers were expected to tutor one child, but Diana, on finding these seventh-grade children could not read at all soon had three under her wing and was taking the train two nights a week into Philadelphia. Later, she became involved in a voter registration drive for blacks in Cambridge, Maryland. Diana, who had already shed her Midwestern Republican views, was becoming increasingly troubled by a view of America she had not dreamed of in Dwight, Illinois.
While her classmates went on to graduate school or a career or got married, Diana joined the Voluntary International Service Assignments (VISA) run by the American Friends Service Committee and was assigned to Guatemala. After three months of training in Guatemala City she arrived in the Indian village of Chichicastenango.
In the ensuing months Diana was numbed by the poverty she saw about her. The sight of drinking water alive with pin worms once moved her to tears, while the memory of an Indian woman with her sick and shivering baby wrapped in papers would stay with her all her life.
Diana worked hard these two years and brought modest improvements to the villagers in education and health. Against the background of millions on the edge of starvation, however, she was painfully aware of the insignificance of her own contribution. An acquaintance, an American Fulbright Scholar living in Guatemala City expressed a view which Diana gradually began to share: that her efforts were merely “delaying the revolution.” As she now saw it, a few wealthy families were keeping the poor in a state of virtual peonage, and her own country, through its repeated intervention in behalf of favored economic interests, was largely to blame.
Considering the long history of U.S. Intervention in Latin American affairs, Diana's view of things was understandable. But there's a difference between the political capitalism of gunboats and puppet dictators, and the private capitalism of the marketplace. Neither Diana nor Karl Marx, however, chose to make such distinctions. It was all the same evil – the institution of private property – and Diana left Guatemala a confirmed radical socialist dedicated to the overthrow of ”capitalism” whatever its form.
Back in the U.S. Diana became active in the radical SDS (founded by Tom Hayden) which, at the Chicago Convention in 1968, precipitated the first major confrontation between the New Left and the armed establishment in the form of Mayor Daley's police. As Diana moved farther toward the edge of the political spectrum the distance between her and her family increased. “I've made my decision, Daddy,” she told her father. “There's no sense talking about it.”
In the summer of 1969 Diana was one of a 36 member delegation which met with North Vietnamese in Cuba. The experience heightened the conviction of the young radicals that the U.S. wolas headed for a major military debacle, and that a revolution was a genuine possibility. After all, Castro had pulled it off with only 13 men. The Weathermen,2as Diana's more radical faction of the SDS was now called, were determined to become the cutting edge of their own revolution.
Diana's individuality was rapidly being submerged into the revolutionary movement. Her sister, Pam, begged Diana to attend her wedding but Diana explained, “My life isn't my own. I don't make the decisions about how I use my time.”
Diana was now living in Weathermen collectives in Flint and Detroit. A major “Days of Rage” demonstration was scheduled for Chicago in October, and as the crucial date approached life in the communes became increasingly savage as Weathermen sought to transform themselves into disciplined revolutionaries. In his book Diana - the Making Of a Terrorist, Thomas Powers described it thus:
…..In practice “everything for the revolution” meant nothing for anything else. As a result, the collectives turned into foul sties where beds went unmade, food rotted on unwashed plates, toilets jammed, dirty clothes piled up in corners …
Inside the collectives the Weathermen were cruel to themselves and each other. Hurt feelings and smoldering grudges poisoned the atmosphere; suffering themselves, people tended to attack each other with increasing violence. Individuals were sometimes attacked so brutally in group criticism sessions they were left whimpering and speechless. Individuals who seemed to hold back some part of themselves were subject to harsh psychological assault; if they persisted, they were sometimes purged. Everyone was overtired and underfed, nervous and fearful. People became stiff and unnatural, afraid they would be attacked for the slightest error, a deliberate process which sometimes hid a desire literally to destroy. 3
The Days of Rage demonstration was a flop. On the final day only about 200 took part. Although Weathermen publicly claimed a success it was apparent they were failing dismally in their attempt to precipitate a mass revolutionary movement. In just four months the contingent had shrunk from 2000 or so idealists to around 200 window-smashing vandals.
But if the violence thus far had not precipitated the inevitable revolution the solution was obvious: escalate the violence one more notch. It was time to go underground. The Weathermen broke up into groups of ten to thirty in order to conduct campaigns of urban guerrilla warfare. Diana phoned her home for the last time. “You know, Diana,” said her mother, “you're killing us both.”
“I'm sorry, Mummy,” Diana answered.
Diana was gaunt and ill when she visited a friend from the old days. She praised the Cuba she had visited. “Isn't it much better for people to work for the good of everybody?” she asked.
It was March 2. Diana had four more days to live. She phoned her sister, Carol, and talked at length about the family and about old friends. Diana abruptly asked, “Will the family stand by me no matter what? Will they help me if I need it?”
“Of course,” Carol said. “Anything.”
Diana left Detroit and soon joined a small group of Weathermen at 18 W. 11th St. in New York City. On the morning of March 6, using clocks, wire, batteries, blasting caps and two 50 pound cases of dynamite, she and Terry Robbins were fabricating the bombs. Just before noon, one of them made a mistake. All they could identify of pretty Diana was the tip of one finger.
Diana Oughton is dead and the Weathermen are long ago dispersed, but the questions are as intriguing today as they were then. For one, why were these youthful radicals so hostile to established wealth when they were themselves invariably from wealthy families? Perhaps this seeming paradox merely affirms the general rule that people do not value what they have not earned; the wealth which was theirs to command had not been created by themselves but by others – by parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. Feeling only contempt for their own unearned affluence they despised all wealth, unearned or not. The distinction between the producer and the dependent was not one which they were intellectually prepared to make.
The fact that these youthful bomb-throwers represented an unusually high level of formal schooling strikes another incongruous note. Diana had attended a “good” public school followed by exclusive private schools including the prestigious Bryn Mawr – yet she had evidently received from them no real understanding of the connection between economic freedom and material progress. If nothing else, the death of Diana stands as a grim monument to the condition of formal education in America today.
Diana regarded capitalism as an immoral and exploitive economic system, and American society in general seems equally befuddled on this issue. The profit motive means self-interest – but in today's confused culture, self-interest is regarded as faintly ignoble. “Who wants to live in a society in which selfishness and self-seeking are celebrated as virtues?” asks neo-conservative Irving Kristol in the WALL STREET JOURNAL. “Isn't it much better for people to work for the good of everybody?” asked Diana Oughton a few days before she blew herself up.
Rejecting self-interest as faintly ignoble, our political leaders attempt to manage an economic system which they seem reluctant to explain or defend, except on narrow material grounds. A discussion of the goals and values of the free economy was once famously dismissed by George HW Bush as "the vision thing." The subsequent campaigns of Bush Jr. and John McCain and Mitt Romney were equally timid and equally value-free. One is reminded of the line from TOM SMITH, Part #2:
"Capitalism?" my friend mused.
"I've heard that once or twice.
I don't recall the context -
But it wasn't very nice!"
Small wonder that our intellectual and political mentors are such patsies for every third-world demagogue who denounces us for our “materialism” and our “private greed”! Rather than promote private capitalism around the world our leaders promote vast government-to-government aid programs which, because they subsidize the entrenched interests of the right or left, serve only to condemn the poor of those countries to a lifetime of poverty and stagnation. If our own leaders can be so foolish perhaps we cannot blame an idealistic young woman in her twenties for being equally confused.
Diana was correct about one thing, however: the poor are indeed being exploited. But as we shall see in the essay THE WAR AGAINST THE POOR, the exploiter has not been capitalism; the exploiter has been the political state.
1) Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers, "The Destruction of Diana," Readers Digest, Nov. 1970.
2) One of the co-founders of the weathermen was the un-repentent.terorist, Bill Ayers, later to become an aquaintance (or "associate," depending on which story you believe) of the future president, Barack Obama. During Obama's run for the Illinois State Senate, a "meet the candidate" event in his behalf was held in the Ayers liviing room.
3) Thomas Powers, Diana - the Making Of a Terrorist (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1971; Bantam paperback edition 1971), pp. 111 -112