Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary

Jonathan Lerner (Alex Underground) was 20 in 1968, "a year of such cascading disaster that it felt to many people, including me, that there could be no rescuing the broken promises of American Democracy." Though he has long since moved on, recent political events in the U.S. stirred him to revisit the radical militancy of his youth in the Weather Underground Organization. The result is this memoir: Swords in the Hands of Children.

A white middle-class suburban kid, Lerner began his activism as a teenager inspired by the civil rights movement. He dropped out of college to become a full-time activist with Students for a Democratic Society, partly motivated by his desire to "humanize" the world. He was also a closeted gay man, and he connects his private self-criticism and self-deception with his willingness to become involved in the Weather Underground. "The breaking down of self-esteem, the abdication of critical judgment, the omnipotent leadership, the not-quite-free free love, the ever-present threat of banishment: We didn't identify our organization as a cult, but I guess people in cults usually don't."

Members romanticized violent resistance and embraced an isolating self-righteousness. They attempted to partner with the Black Panthers, in a "toxic ecosystem of sycophancy, bullying, degraded principle, and madness." He was not involved in the infamous bombings, "just because I was never asked." Lerner's story of emotional and moral development in this environment is intimate. It is also a broad consideration of how radical ideas can seduce apparently nice, normal, quiet people into ideologically driven terrorism. --Sara Catterall

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