Bright Lights Film Journal

Lone Rangers: Using Terror to Publicize “Revolution”

A screenshot from Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966)

From the margins, both a “crazy man” and visionary artists can ask: How can leaders govern when language has been debased and words no longer have true meaning?

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What to make of would-be revolutionaries who call attention to their grievances with mass murder? Considering the cases of Anders Behring Breivik, Jared Loughner, Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”), a scene from Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon returns to my mind. A white man (Kevin Kline) is threatened by black youths on a dark Los Angeles street. A tow truck arrives, driven by a black man (Danny Glover). The gang leader asks: “Do you respect me, or do you respect my gun?” The Glover character replies honestly: “You don’t have that gun, there’s no way we’re having this conversation.”

Breivik, Loughner, McVeigh, and Kaczynski were all lone rangers. Not the kind of guy you want to have a beer with. All apparently heterosexual, but didn’t seem to get along with the ladies. Spent too much time in front of computer screens (Kaczynski excepted), and came to the conclusion that building bombs was the best way to start a dialogue. They didn’t have a sidekick to serve as their moral conscience.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto: screenshot from the 1950s TV series

The original Lone Ranger came out of a violent posse – the Texas Rangers. His buddies were all killed (probably had it coming, revisionist historians say). The only survivor, the Lone Ranger was nursed back to health by an Indian (with the unfortunate name Tonto). A precursor to Dances with Wolves, perhaps. Although this masked man fought for justice, he never shot to kill. He specialized in shooting the gun out of the Bad Guy’s hand!1

Imagine trying to get any coverage with that approach nowadays. We’re only “having this conversation” because figures ranging from Breivik to ISIS’s headhunters decided that it was better to kill too many than too few. Perhaps they reflect a darkening of the “vigilante turn” in political culture’s entertainment front. The career of the Lone Ranger began on radio in 1933 and ended on TV in 1957. Like Superman, his strong moral compass was applied to the fight for social justice and the battle against tyranny. But public tastes soon turned to vigilantes with a taste for vengeance. Troubling questions emerged: did nonviolent “heroes for justice” really have a sane moral code? “How many lives would Batman have saved had he killed the Joker, instead of repeatedly capturing him?”2

The new cinematic vigilantes from the 1960s on operated outside the law to combat lawlessness. As lone rangers of a sort in a world where the Bad Guys seem to run things, they sometimes seemed to take more pleasure in killing “scum” than in achieving actual justice.

The Lone Ranger, as well as his latter-day progeny of vigilantes, sought to purge their respective societies. But contemporary lone terrorists are a different breed, seeking to foment revolution more than seek justice. They are obsessed with striking a lethal blow against a government, or a ruling system, seen as hypocritical or self-destructive. Their enemies are abstract symbols more than an identifiable “Bad Guy,” so the killing of innocents is justified as a blow against the “evil empire.” And these lone rangers like to cite philosophers to rationalize the carnage they have committed in the name of their respective revolutionary schemes.

Breivik posted a YouTube video just hours before initiating his slaughter in Norway, calling for a “Conservative Revolution” across Europe in which “the multiculturalist cities will be defeated and Islam will again be banished from Europe.” Breivik quotes Thomas Jefferson on the tree of liberty being refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants.3

Funny how popular Jefferson has become amongst would-be-revolutionaries with a thirst for blood. Jefferson’s quote has long been a part of American political rhetoric, but ultra-conservatives have carried the banner the last two decades. Michele Bachmann got lots of press by quoting Jefferson’s line: “A revolution every now and then is a good thing.” Many more pledged allegiance to Jefferson’s tree of liberty. After Jared Loughner’s shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, on January 8, 2011, one blogger wrote: “I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve read Thomas Jefferson’s quote about ‘shedding the blood of tyrants’ posted by a Teabagger on Facebook.”4 Jefferson’s bloody tree had gone viral.

That quote was iconic amongst right-wing revolutionists much earlier. After Army vet Timothy McVeigh killed 168 with his bomb in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, an Oklahoma State Trooper pulled him over. McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt featuring Abe Lincoln and the motto sic semper tyrannis (thus always to tyrants), which John Wilkes Booth shouted after he shot Lincoln. On the back was the image of a bloody tree and that (in)famous Jefferson quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”5

Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The urge to purge makes for strange bedfellows. Breivik plagiarized parts of his 1,500-page cut-and-paste conservative opus from Ted Kaczynski’s Industrial Society and Its Future. Kaczynski only managed to kill three people with his mail bombs. But that treatise he wrote in the Montana wilderness, in which he called for a “revolution against technology,” has achieved an afterlife that will elude Breivik. Kaczynski became a “terrorist of choice” for some on the left, although he despises leftists.6 He is drawn to the idea of real revolutionaries, and wants to purify the concept: “The real revolutionaries should separate themselves from the reformers.”7 These homicidal latter-day lone rangers share the tendency to want to police the concept of the “true revolutionary” and to separate the wheat from the chaff. This demonstrates again that the ongoing aspiration to be/create “real revolutionaries” is not a conservative or leftist issue.

Breivik “took a year off” at age 25 to play World of Warcraft. A “hard-core gamer,” he claims to have used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to train himself to perpetrate a massacre. He poses as the first trumpet in a Christian jihad, but in fact seems to have “created a real-world version of his favorite video game.”8 Like other would-be revolutionary lone rangers, he used violence to separate the true believers from the backsliders – in Breivik’s case, those who had accommodated his arch-enemy: “cultural Marxists,” or multiculturalists who had allowed the Islamic hordes to defile European patrimony.9

Our outrage toward terrorism is selective. People “strongly condemn terrorist acts committed in the name of political agendas of which they do not approve,” but “turn a blind eye toward savagery done in the name of ideals they share,” as Alston Chase has observed. The dialogue that these terrorists/would-be revolutionaries facilitate carries some uncomfortable ironies. In a 1995 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, anarcho-primitivst author John Zerzan admitted: “It’s ironic – the newspapers wouldn’t be up talking to me if (the Unabomber) hadn’t been blowing people up.”10 If not for the bombs, we’re not having this conversation.

The American right had been awash in anti-Muslim rhetoric for years. “Islamophobes” distanced themselves from Breivik, but proclaimed that he was “right” about multiculturalism being an abject failure. In Europe, Breivik’s carnage brought full focus to a crisis that had begun to transcend ideology. This is made clear in a range of studies, such as Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West.11

This discussion of violence perpetrated to “cleanse the nation” brings us to the question of madness. The voice crying in the wilderness, or the voice on the edge of town (Thoreau), can speak truths that have been repressed by the dominant society. For those who live within a given hegemonic order, there is a cost for thinking “outside the box.” The penalty for vigorously challenging an entrenched status quo is clear in the history of the reaction to anarchist thought. A pervasive groupthink results, making it hard to question sacred cows such as the utilitarian good of technological progress. It is one thing for Jacques Ellus, a French Marxist theologian, to describe technology as a “new slavery.” It is quite another to use violence to launch this message in mainstream forums such as the New York Times.12

Ted Kaczynski, 1968. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But we would not study revolutions if we did not think there was some potential value, or danger, in this “sacred madness.” Kaczynski’s critique resonated with many, however abhorrent his acts were. It spoke to the repression of critical thought that cannot be admitted into normative discourse (mental slavery, as Marley said). Kaczynski wrote about this, informed by his passage through Harvard, the University of Michigan, and Cal: “Our society tends to regard as a ‘sickness’ any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system, and this is plausible because when an individual doesn’t fit into the system it causes pain to the individual as well as problems for the system. Thus the manipulation of an individual to adjust him to the system is seen as a ‘cure’ for a ‘sickness’ and therefore as good.”13

Kaczynski was early “diagnosed” with an IQ of 167. He skipped two grades, entering Harvard at age 16. Social awkwardness was part of the “pain” and mis-fit he mentions. More crucial was his participation in “purposely brutalizing” psychological experiments at Harvard. These would lead to fantasies of “rousing mobs to frenzies of revolutionary violence.”14 The compulsion to punish scientists was such a pervasive theme with Kaczynski that his lawyers tried to have him declared insane to save his life. But when it became clear that Kaczynski was intent on a political trial, wiser heads prevailed. His life was spared in exchange for silencing his voice, and this silence has mostly extended to academic engagement with his writings.15

If elite universities seem to have twisted Kaczynski, and made him distrust technology and scientists, then the army warped Timothy McVeigh’s (126 IQ) mind. In interviews he gave prior to his execution, McVeigh recounted having decapitated an Iraqi soldier with cannon fire on his first day in the war. Like many soldiers, he celebrated this act: and such acts are routinely glorified on anti-Islamic sites. But McVeigh seems to have been traumatized when he was ordered to execute surrendering soldiers, and by seeing the grisly carnage on the “highway of death” out of Kuwait City. This was the start of McVeigh’s anti-government feelings.16

At first, these feelings took a distinctly right-wing turn. He was a sympathizer of militia movements and an avid reader of the racist Turner Diaries.17 He found a home at gun shows in the American west. But what radicalized him was the federal government’s handling of the Waco Siege. He decided that since no one within institutional channels would put limits on the state’s monopoly on violence, he would redress that imbalance by committing an act of terror. McVeigh conceived of this as an act of patriotism in defense of the Declaration of Independence.

McVeigh’s retrospective explanations of his act show that his critique of U.S. foreign policy had arrived at a place not dissimilar to that being voiced by the American left. McVeigh rightly pointed out that “the U.S. has set the standard when it comes to the stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction.” He argued that we have a selective morality about the use of these weapons: “Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City.”18

“When a U.S. plane or cruise missile is used to bring destruction to a foreign people, this nation rewards the bombers with applause and praise,” McVeigh wrote. Such a “morality of killing” is “superficial,” he believed. “The truth is, the use of a truck, a plane, or a missile for the delivery of a weapon of mass destruction does not alter the nature of the act itself. . . . [T]he method of delivery matters little to those on the receiving end of such weapons.”

Our outrage about the killing of women and children is selective, and hypocritical, McVeigh believes. He mentions Dresden, Tripoli, Baghdad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. McVeigh observes that at the two Japanese locations, the U.S. killed at least 150,000 non-combatants – mostly women and children – in the blink of an eye. He also is at pains to point out the inconsistency in the criticism he received for having bombed a building with a day care center. In a place like the Gaza Strip, a day care center may be characterized as a “shield” used by enemy combatants, McVeigh points out. His three-word afterthought to his readers has an understated power: “Think about that.”19

Ambulance in Gaza destroyed by Israeli airstrikes during Operation Protective Edge (2014). Photo by Boris Neihaus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Does the use of weapons of mass destruction against American citizens invalidate the moral parallel that McVeigh wants us to think about? Sometimes outlaws with nothing left to lose speak uncomfortable truths. The apparently loony Loughner stepped through a looking glass to express a startling insight. In his “final thoughts” posted before his killing spree, Loughner wrote: “What’s government if words don’t have meaning?”20 He had posed that question to his target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, several years before shooting her. Somehow, Loughner hit the nail on the head about our current legitimation crisis. Director Godfrey Reggio has spoken of “the vast humiliation of language” in our mass culture.21 He himself spoke from the wilderness after decades of meditation in a religious order in the desert Southwest. From the margins, both a “crazy man” and visionary artists can ask: How can leaders govern when language has been debased and words no longer have true meaning?

Mel Gibson in The Patriot

Mass media tends to reinforce a frame of “acceptable and excluded images of violence, installing and patrolling the frontier between heroic freedom-fighters and evil terrorists,” notes Webster in an essay about the “terrorist as a central figure in the social imaginary.”22 There is one stream of American film, as in Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot (2000), in which terrorist tactics, when utilized for the “right reasons” (even when played by Mel Gibson), are celebrated uncritically.23 However, the best cinema can offer a more complex view of the relationship between violence and revolutionary movements. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1996) demands a reconsideration of presumed moral high ground in “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”-type arguments.24 The film offers both a dialogue through violence (between the French and the Algerians), as well as a dialogue about violence. Half a century after the release of Battle of Algiers, we have become ever more skilled at “dialogue” through violence. But a meaningful debate about violence, and the romance versus the reality of revolution, still seems beyond our reach.

  1. Zane Grey, The Lone Star Ranger: A Romance of the Border (Grosset & Dunlap, 1915). Robert M. Utley tries to strike a balance between the revisionists, and earlier historians such as Walter Prescott Webb upheld the “bright legend” of the Texas Rangers, in Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers (Berkley Trade, 2003). Re: this legend’s political afterlife: Robert M. Perito, Where Is the Lone Ranger When We Need Him? America’s Search for a Postconflict Stability Force (United States Institute of Peace (January 2004). []
  2. Daniel Greenfield, “Hero or Vigilante: A Comic Book Hero’s Moral Code,” Hubpages (2009). []
  3. J. E. Dyer, “Breivik, Post-Modern Crusader, Hot Air (July 25, 2011). []
  4. Nick Bulka, “Loughner: It was Predictable” (Jan. 11, 2011). Rep. Bachmann (R-Minn.) sometimes seems to slip into Lone Ranger-speak, combined with echoes from the Spanish Civil War. Campaigning against President Obama’s health care proposal in Colorado, she said: “What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass.” Matthew DeLong, “Bachmann: We Have to ‘Slit Our Wrists, Be Blood Brothers’ Against Health Care Reform,” Washington Independent (August 31, 2009). []
  5. Turner Diaries introduced in McVeigh trial,” CNN. []
  6. Kaczynski “protests too much” about leftists. Scott Corey, “On the Unabomber,” Telos #118 (2000). Kaczynski has criticized the Green Anarchy movement for becoming “deflected away from the real revolutionary objective – to eliminate modern technology and civilization in general – in favor of the pseudo-revolutionary issues of racism, sexism, animal rights, homosexual rights, and so forth.” Ted Kaczynski, “Letter to a Turkish anarchist” (undated). []
  7. Interview with Ted Kaczynski, Administrative Maximum Facility Prison, Florence, Colorado” (June 1999). []
  8. Tom Law, “Did Call of Duty Really Influence Anders Breivik?” Sabotage Times (August 1, 2011); William Boston, “Killer’s Manifesto: The Politics Behind the Norway Slaughter,” Time (July 24, 2011). Breivik had a “quite multicultural childhood.” His closest friend until age 16 was a boy from a Pakistani family in his neighborhood, Arsalan Sohail. Breivik also mentions a friend named Faizal Rafique. Omar Rafique, 26, the younger brother of Faizal, says: “He and Arsalan were very good friends.” Nathan Thomburgh and William Boston, “Anders Behring Breivik: Why He Wants You to Look at Him,” Time (August 4, 2011). []
  9. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (Harper, 1951). []
  10. Alston Chase, “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” Atlantic Monthly (June 2000), 65; Michael Taylor, “Real Anarchists Decry Unabomber,” San Francisco Chronicle (May 16, 1995). []
  11. Patrick J. Buchanan, “A Fire Bell in the Night for Norway,” WorldNetDaily (July 25, 2011); Reframing the debate for the center in Europe: Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West (Random House, 2009). []
  12. Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (Vintage, 1964), 192. Marxist: D. B. Clendenin, Theological Method in Jacques Ellul (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987), 25. []
  13. Theodore Kaczinski, Industrial Society and Its Future (1995), reprinted in Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber”, with an Introduction by David Skribina (Feral House, 2010). The original essay, published jointly by the New York Times & the Washington Post, is available online. The quote is from Paragraph 155. []
  14. Alston Chase, “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber,” The Atlantic Monthly (June 2000), 41-65; Alston Chase, A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism (Norton, 2004). []
  15. Scott Corey, “On the Unabomber,” Telos #118 (2000). []
  16. Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing (Harper, 2001). []
  17. Andrew MacDonald (William Luther Pierce), The Turner Diaries (National Alliance, 1978). These anti-government white supremacists executed interracial couples. While in jail he read John Ross, Unintended Consequences (St. Paul, MN: Accurate Press, 1996), said it was a better book than the Turner Diaries, and could be his “New Testament.” []
  18. Timothy McVeigh, “An Essay on Hypocrisy,” (March 1998); accessed August 5, 2011. []
  19. Timothy McVeigh, “Letter to Fox News,” (April 26, 2001); accessed August 5, 2011. []
  20. Jared Loughner, “My Final Thoughts.” []
  21. Reggio quoted in Gregory Stephens, “Koyaanisqatsi & the Visual Narrative of Environmental Film,” Screening the Past #28 (Fall 2010). []
  22. Duncan Webster, “‘Nobody’s Patsy’: Versions of Patty Hearst,” Critical Quarterly 32:1 (March 1990), p. 4, my emphasis. []
  23. Matthew B. Hill, “Insurgency, Myth, and American History,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 46:6 (2013), 1289-1309. []
  24. Alan O’Leary and Neelam Srivastava, “Violence and the Wretched: The Cinema of Gillo Pontecorvo,” Italianist 29:2 (2009), 249-264, (256). []