August 24, 1970: Bombing of university math faculty in Wisconsin

On this day in 1970, a massive car bomb detonated by anti-Vietnam War protesters killed a University of Wisconsin professor.

Terrorists often go to great lengths to justify those they kill.

If you have a disagreement with someone what do you do? Do you seek to sit down with that person and have a civil discussion on whatever it is that is bothering you? Do you stew about it by yourself? Do you plan on ‘getting back at’ the person you feel has ‘wronged’ you?

Of course the first option is the best one, at least in my opinion. Number 3 is the worst of course. This is what terrorist groups do by the way. They identify a whole host of ‘enemies’ whom they seek to punish for whatever grievance they may hold.

Before I go into today’s attack, I need to raise another issue: the Vietnam War. To say that this was a ‘controversial’ war is a huge understatement. I will not go into details for obvious reasons (this is a blog, not a book after all): suffice to say that America was seriously divided over this issue. I remember seeing footage of demonstrations and riots, and I recall when the US decided – finally – to pull out in the mid 1970s. All very fascinating.

Some chose to use violence to register their opposition to the war, although the vast majority were involved in peaceful opposition. We have all seen photos or footage of the anti-war protesters, replete with ‘make love not war’ signs, smoking pot, and having a grand old time.

There were, however, those who sought to undermine the war effort by using violence. They would target anyone and anything they saw as complicit in the US war machine. Today’s attack is a good example of that.

On this day in 1970

On this day in 1970 four anti-Vietnam War radicals used a van filled with almost a ton of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil to bomb the University of Wisconsin’s Madison Campus’ Sterling Hall, killing researcher Robert Fassnacht and injuring three others. The target of the blast was the Army Mathematics Research Center, which only suffered minor damage in the bombing, while the most damage was to the university’s physics department, where Fassnacht was working.

Pieces of the stolen 1967 Ford Deluxe Club Wagon that had held the bomb were found on top of an eight-story building three blocks away. The terrorists had targeted the mathematics research centre to protest its involvement with US Army research. The university campus was a hotbed of anti-Vietnam protests in the 1960s and 1970s.

The bombing was the worst act of domestic terrorism in the US until the Oklahoma City bombing a quarter century later.

In the end, the US decided to leave Vietnam. Professor Fassnacht, who had nothing to do with the war, was killed in an act of terrorism. So, did the ends justify the means in this instance? I think not.

When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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