Charles Manson, perhaps the most wicked killer since the Nazis set up their abattoir in the Germany of the previous century, is gone now, banished by death to a decision at the judgment bar of God, from which there is no appeal. But we can measure the damage he and his times did here on our patch of Earth.
Manson was a product of the ‘60s, famous for the “summer of love” in San Francisco, the ultimate reflection of the decade from which so much chaos, moral decay, rot and cultural putrefaction sprang. We see the result writ large in our own times. The rot did not originate there; it goes back to Eden, but it flowered there. Manson’s death in prison last week only recalls the poisonous swill distilled in the City by the Bay. Rarely have so many been influenced for ill by so few. “If it feels good,” went the words to live by in that decadent decade, “do it.” A whole culture collapsed.
What has happened since is a living illustration of the theory, compounded early in this century by the American sociologist Stanley Milgram, of “six degrees of separation,” the idea once described that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
Bernadine Dohrn was an “activist” — some might have called her a community organizer — in San Francisco in the ‘60s, who with her husband Bill Ayers were indicted for inciting a riot and conspiracy to bomb government buildings. The lady was convicted; her husband was not, but he remains unrepentant to this day, infamously telling The New York Times that “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Bombers from the left of the ‘60s, however, have been honored by Harvard, $100 million grants from foundations founded on the fortunes of capitalists, and dinner invitations from distinguished professors of liberal indoctrination.
Only six degrees of separation, as events have illustrated, would eventually separate violent ‘60s radicals and the White House. Bernardine Dohrn delivered a remarkable speech to the Students for a Democratic Society, meeting in Michigan at the end of the decade where there was serious discussion of whether killing white babies is inherently revolutionary, since all white people are the enemy of revolution.
Bernadine Dohrn praised Charles Manson and his infamous cult of killer women, who broke into a house in Los Angeles in the middle of the night and murdered Sharon Tate, a beautiful and popular movie star, her unborn child and several others who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They left a fork thrust into the belly of the pregnant actress, and four raised fingers, representing a fork, became a sick symbol of “revolution.”
“Dig it!” cried Mzz Dohrn in her speech to the Students for a Democratic Society. “First they killed these pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into [Miss Tate’s] stomach. Wild!”
“You may ask,” writes a reflective liberal Paul Berman, who lived in the famous hippie Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in those turbulent times, in the magazine Tablet, “how could these things have happened? They happened. The point is: these things can happen to anyone. The potential for entire social movements to end up sympathizing with visibly pathological murderers with swastikas carved into their foreheads is a persistent potential. All you have to do is let down, for a brief moment, your simplest sense of right and wrong, perhaps because you pride yourself on being upset about some social issue.”
The unrepentant bomber Bill Ayers escaped prison, but he kept himself busy, moving to Chicago to organize something called the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, collecting Annenberg Foundation money, and making friends with the young Barack Obama.
Mr. Obama’s first run for the Illinois state Senate began in the home of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who held a fundraiser for him. Six degrees of separation unites the most interesting folks. Mr. Obama has insisted that his only association with Bill Ayers — a radical, leftist, small-c communist, as the radical, leftist, small-c communist once described himself — was just in passing. “He was just a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” Mr. Obama has said, “not somebody who I exchange ideas with on a regular basis.” Nothing said about an irregular basis.
Charles Manson is gone, but the wickedness reflected in his sinister demeanor lives on in our present times. Six degrees of separation is not very far.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.