Location: People's Republic of Madison, Wisconsin

Friday, August 26, 2005

Fry Karl

This week marks the 35th anniversary of the Sterling Hall bombing. On August 24th, 1970, members of the Madison peace movement detonated a truck bomb that heavily damaged UW-Madison's physics building. The blast also killed Robert Fassnacht, who was a physics postdoc and the father of three young children.

To commemorate the bombing, the Capital Times hands the mic to apologists for Karl Armstrong, who planned the bombing. One of the interviewees was caught while trying to spaypaint the following slogan on a Madison wall: "One side's right. One side's wrong. We're on the side of Karl Armstrong." But that is very moderate compared to another Armstrong supporter:

To others, such as writer James Rowen, more appalling was that the UW's military assistance indirectly killed thousands of Vietnamese. When Sterling Hall was bombed, its Army Mathematics Research Center was the nation's only Army-funded think tank, working to hike enemy casualties.

Imagine that! Trying to inflict casualties on the enemy. You might thing we were at war or something.

When Fassnacht is mentioned, it is in the context of pointing out that his death had a negative effect on the "anti-war" movement. The article makes no mention of Fassnacht's family, or the millions of dollars in damage inflicted, or the massive loss of scientific research in several departments. Physics deparment lore has it that Fassnacht's advisor, Heinz Barschall (who had worked on the Manhatten Project), basically gave up on research after the bombing. In later years, he was known for some rather fluffy papers on the cost effectiveness of physics journals.

Armstrong was eventually captured, and served a laughably short sentence for his crime. With the help of Madison's congressman, he was paroled in 1980. This being Madison, a protest movement sprang up in support of the murderer, complete with "free Karl" tee-shirts.

In all the discussion about the bombing one crucial point is never discussed. In 1970, we were at war. The Army Math Research Center (then housed in Sterling) was the target of the bombing. So Armstrong launched a violent attack on a military installation in a time of war. If that isn't treason, then nothing is.

Even if the bombers hadn't killed anyone, they should have been sentenced to death.

More information on the bombing

Update: Since creating this post I read the book Rads, which covers the events leading up the the Sterlin Hall bombing. There's one important correction: Fassnacht was not in nuclear physics, but in solid state - superconductivity, to be exact. His advisor was John Dillinger, not Heinz Barschall. Barschall did lose years of research and have two graduate students injured in the attack.

I'll post a review of this book, if my legions of readers demand it.


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