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In the sensationalism produced and notoriety granted the defendants, the ensuing conspiracy trial of the Harrisburg Eight was an incident in the history of the repression of antiwar radicals perhaps second only to the conspiracy [End Page 75] trials following the Democratic Party's 1968 convention in Chicago. Ahmad's persona added to the public intrigue. Next to his Catholic comrades, Ahmad and his identity as a Pakistani-American scholar of revolutionary warfare and counterinsurgency in the Third World made for a peculiar contrast widely noted in the media. After spending fourteen months in legal limbo from the date of their arrests to the jury's verdict, the Eight were acquitted when it became apparent that the prosecution's main witness was a former convict on the Bureau's payroll. (Berrigan and his wife were convicted for mail fraud.) Hoover died four weeks later.1 Coinciding with the leaking of the Pentagon Papers and subsequent federal trials involving Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times, the government's case succumbed to a growing popular awareness of official malfeasance at the highest levels of the federal government.
Not surprisingly, the Kissinger kidnapping plot has been overlooked in recent histories of 1960s radicalism. As only one event in the history of a large and diverse antiwar movement, it has receded from view in both the annals of academic scholarship and popular historical memory. At the same time, radical organizations such as the Black Panther Party and the Weathermen have attracted increasing public interest and scholarly scrutiny.2 In the case of the latter, new monographs, an anthology of Weathermen writings, autobiographies, and a popular documentary all explore the group's rise and fall and its meaning in the history of the sixties and American radicalism.3 This new work is part of a larger effort to revise older narratives about the American New Left, mostly written in the 1980s and 1990s, which established an interpretive framework characterized by John McMillian as the "New Left consensus."4 New Left consensus narratives employed a framework of declension to explain the apparently tragic trajectory of the white New Left and its allegedly representative organizational expression, Students for a Democratic Society. SDS, it is argued, based in an interracial civil rights movement, student rights agitation, and a politics of participatory democracy, imploded in the late 1960s, the casualty of a volatile mixture of internal political factionalism, government repression, and the ascension of increasingly militant and dogmatic factions that "descended into violence." These developments, it is claimed, caused the American New Left to diverge from its earlier nonviolent and vaguely liberal, "radical liberal," or social democratic traditions and values. As historian Van Gosse has observed, in these narratives this movement's descent into violence is perceived as "a [End Page 76] grievous and willful error" that "defines the closure or 'death'" of the New Left in the United States as a whole.5
It was the fate characteristic of nearly all that generationthat, as their training neared completion, theywere called away for ever from the work for which theyhad been trained and lost to the peaceful service of mankind.By 1914 their seniors had completed their apprenticeshipand made their transition; though their uprootingwas greater, they had at least found for a momenttheir place in the uncaring void. The apprenticeshipof their juniors had not yet begun: they passed fromschool or university to their war-service, and the survivorspostponed until the end of the war their practicalpreparation for civic life. This is not to say that oneis to be envied more than another; in every country atthe outbreak of every war, one generation is more violentlydislocated than the rest; when all loss of life iswaste of a nation's resources, it may be felt that the mostgrievous waste is among those who have completed theirscholastic education and prepared themselves for workwhich they can never fulfil. "Childhood makes the instrument,youth tunes the strings, and early manhoodplays the melody." The vanished generation neverplayed upon the instrument; it was hardly tuned beforeit was struck to the ground, and music of another kindwas heard.
And hardly a voice had been raised in protest. Whenthey found that the policy of the cabinet was committingtens of millions, without their knowledge, to war, a handfulof ministers did indeed resign, with less commotionthan a man would cause in leaving a table where thecards were marked; but of the others who had raved andargued for non-intervention all were snugly ensconcedin office. The major complaisance made easy the minor;and the party which had left its principles on the thresholdbefore drifting into war drifted into conscriptionwithout realising that it had any more principles toabandon. Sir John Simon, who had stood forth as thechampion of the voluntary system, argued half-heartedlyfrom the standpoint of expediency and resignedwhen his political influence had evaporated. Andyet this servility to the dictates of government was notthe result of a splendid resolve to close the ranks and tosupport the ministry in its hour of crisis: there was nounion of hearts comparable with that effected betweenthe republicans and the democrats in America. Theunited front at home broke down after the battle ofNeuve Chapelle; and from May 1915 till December1916 there was such an orgy of political intrigue asGreat Britain had not seen in living memory.
In short phrase, the restraints of modern civilisationwere burst on the resurgence of primitive man.Honourable, kindly, fastidious, gentle and reservedspirits, dragged back across the ages, lied and cheated,fought and bullied in an orgy of intrigue and self-seeking,of intoxication and madness. Only in this way andat this price could those who had fared delicately andlived softly endure hardships which for generations orcenturies had been removed from the average experienceof civilisation; the bravery of the savage emerged handin hand with the savage's ferocity, his licence, his superstitionand his credulity.
The slightest reference may unprison the foul gasesof that trial; it is best to regard it as the necessary resultof a nervous and physical strain too great to be borne.Day after day, in an English court of law, before aBritish jury and the senior judge of the King's BenchDivision there was recited a tale of intrigue and debaucheryfrom which the librettist of a melodrama wouldhave turned away in unbelief and the alienist in disgust.Honoured names were introduced as pegs for the chargeof treason and sexual perversion; the educational influenceof the press was exerted to secure that a hundredthousand villages should be made acquainted with thebewildering nomenclature of infamous vices. When theoriginal newspaper charges were met with a counterchargeof criminal libel, the direction of the judge andthe intelligence of a British jury resulted in a verdictof "Not Guilty." And there was cheering in court andin the street. And some people believed that, as theprisoner had been acquitted, the charges must be true.After three years we can look back on judge and jury,prisoner and public with less disgust than pity; to thepsychologist the Pemberton-Billing trial is a reminderthat he must be on his guard whenever he hears stereotypedphrases about the political instinct, the justice andsanity, still more the chivalry of the English. Not evenas a political manœuvre was it successful.