No matter how low terrorists are held in public opinion, they're not going away anytime soon. Those wacky terrorists are notoriously terrible at picking up on social cues. Why on earth would anybody think that bombing innocent civilians is an acceptable career path? No, seriously, that's not rhetorical: We honestly wanted to know. So we sat down with Shane Paul O'Doherty, a former IRA bomber turned pacifist, and asked him about his life. Here's what he told us ...
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In 1916, a bunch of poets and artists launched a revolution against the British from Ireland's capital, Dublin. They were exactly as successful as artists and poets usually are against battleships and machine guns.
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The pen is mightier than the sword, but it doesn't fare so well against naval artillery.
The British executed the ringleaders of this "rising," and those deaths inspired a successful uprising against the British that ended with Ireland split in two. Suddenly there was a border, and Irish Catholics on the north side of it found themselves treated like second-class citizens. Shane recalls understanding that he was now an "inferior" class of person at an age when most of us barely understood that the Power Rangers weren't real people.
The only "inferiority" on this kid's mind should revolve around whether to ask Santa for a PS4 or an Xbox One.
"I grew up in a well-off middle class neighborhood, a mix of Protestant and Catholic kids. The first time I realized I was 'inferior' is when a Protestant friend told me, 'My mother said you're a Roman Catholic, and that means you're gonna burn in hellfire forever.' And I asked my mom why we were going to burn in hell. I was only 5 or 6, but I already knew we were second-class citizens in our own country."
The British soldiers were welcomed at first, because when you've got armed gangs of religious fanatics throwing bombs at each other on the street, uniformed soldiers throwing significantly fewer explosives in crowded public areas seems like it might be a step up.
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The thing people forget about police states is that they're mildly preferable to regular shrapnelings.
"We went down to the barricades, made them sandwiches and pots of tea, and ran for cigarettes. There was a fantastic welcome initially. But within a few months they came under the orders of the unionist government and barricaded Catholic neighborhoods, took names and addresses, asking us where we were going. We'd go through 16 times a day, saying our names were Mickey Mouse or whatever. There was great contempt, and it eventually escalated to stone throwing and the like."
You've got to admire the self-confidence that allows someone to see armored cars in the distance and go "Screw it, rock."
Shane was 14 when the first British soldiers occupied his neighborhood. At that age, we were playing GoldenEye and sad games of Spin the Bottle (alone, with a picture of Tiffani Amber Thiessen) for fun. Shane was throwing rocks at soldiers with machine guns and body armor. All good times.
And then the shooting started.
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Shane was just 17 on Bloody Sunday, 1972. A group of civil rights marchers were fired on by British paratroopers. It was as clear a war crime as you get. Fourteen marchers were gunned down. Seven of those marchers were children; five of them had been shot in the back.
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"It was a big day to be out, you'd see girls, friends ... nobody expected a paratrooper assault. When they opened fire, we were so close, even my friend McAteer was arrested. There's a picture of him put up on a wall. I was a cross-country runner in school and I got away."
Watching his neighbors get massacred by British soldiers was a game-changer for Shane. We're going to go ahead and assume that seeing children gunned down by soldiers is the kind of thing that prompts some deep soul searching. Shane searched his soul and didn't exactly find happiness and butterflies flitting about in there:
"I realized I could be shot dead for nothing (a rights march) or shot dead for something (trying to change the situation by violence)."
Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty
This is not a realization you ever want your teens to come to.
The British government would eventually admit (in 2010) that the shooting was wholly unjustified, but at the time, there weren't even arrests. The British Army couldn't have organized a better recruitment drive for the IRA if they'd rented out the Dublin convention center and started offering to match terrorist's 401(k) contributions.
"When soldiers first open fired on rioters and shot dead teenagers, we had no guns, no means of defense, no government to appeal to. We started screaming to the IRA, where are the guns and the self-defense? And so quickly a half-dead zombie IRA was given a breath of new life. The British were shooting civilians, and we queued up to shoot back ... Kids like me were sidelined. It was eight or nine months before I got back into the action because there were so many adult volunteers."
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But the hipster terrorists would always know Shades here didn't get into the IRA until after it was cool.
Shane and his fellow teens would get their chance to fight again, however. Because it turns out ...
Adults have jobs, families, and responsibilities. Many of them have had sex and enjoyed the pleasures of beer and gourmet sandwiches. They've met enough people that it's more difficult to convince them that whole swathes of humanity deserve murder. If your job is to recruit soldiers for the IRA or the PLO or al-Qaida, you're going to prefer 17- and 18-year-olds for the same reason the Marine Corps and the IDF recruit from that age group: They've got lots of energy and you barely have to pay them.
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Our childhood's only "shelling" came when Mom took us to that restaurant with the baskets of free peanuts.
"I remember at 15 getting a handgun and taking potshots at trained soldiers carrying automatic rifles. Just getting up as close as I could and firing away, then running. I lost some friends who were shot dead by soldiers. And slowly we trained ourselves."
Teens have energy and vigor, and most importantly, they lack the sort of moral compass necessary to question whether firing blindly at strangers is really a solid plan.
Alex Bowie / Hulton Archive / Getty
"Hey, wait -- what are we doing with these?"
"You can't expect 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, the main fodder of the campaign, to have a depth of morality beyond the crude teenage desire to get back at their enemy. Get revenge for the murders of their friends. I'm not going to attribute any retroactive moral depth for it. The breakfast meeting for IRA kids at the time was 'How many can we kill before they kill us?'"
At the same age, we had similar sentiments about cereal.
"Here we were, adults giving us boy soldiers small guns and rifles we hardly knew how to use. My friend Lafferty, only two years older than me, got a .303 sporting rifle, and within days of its arrival he went out at night with it, and an hour later he was dead."
Studies have found that the average age of a terrorist is in the high teens to early twenties. In other words, professional terrorism is a little bit like a rave: If you're over 25, you're either the guy in charge of the club or one of those weird dudes who doesn't realize he's too old to be there.
In fairness, Zeke's the shit.
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"When Bloody Sunday happened, it became a serious business -- everybody's aim was to kill British soldiers and send them back in boxes."
In any action movie you've ever seen, there's a low point where the enemy gains the upper hand. They blow up Alderaan or kill Rue or steal Bruce Willis' shoes. Said crime both inspires and justifies the murderous rampage our heroes embark upon in the third act. The Bloody Sunday massacre was that moment for the young men of the IRA.
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"Hey, do you guys think maybe all of our problems could be solved by guns?"
"We decided ... what the hell, take [bombs] to London. Give them the same thing we're experiencing. Ravage the city with letter bombs. There was huge celebration when the home secretary behind Bloody Sunday got blown up and injured by a bomb. When 10 Downing Street got a bomb, there was rejoicing that these crude measures had penetrated security."
Shane found himself working as a terrorist mail bomber by virtue of the fact that he was one of the few people crazy enough to work with explosives:
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And the summer he spent co-managing a Sbarro.
"There were so many killed by premature bomb blasts that NO ONE in the IRA wanted to work with explosives. I was one of the few. I was so incredibly passionate and crazed that I volunteered to plant bombs without knowing what they were. I went to the local library and learned about explosives and detonators, there was no Google then. I got a copy of some American 'behind the lines' Special Forces manual. I read about booby traps and started experimenting with letter bombs, having read about them in the PLO conflict in the Sunday Times.
"Eventually someone asked, 'Can you go to London?' ... I flew there with a backpack containing detonators and explosives. Literally flew there with that. I went to a bookshop, found a Who's Who, got the 10 Downing Street address, a list of judges' addresses, etc. So I built a bunch of letter bombs and sent them out. Suddenly it was international news."
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In the '70s, "airport security" meant keeping everyone too drunk to start anything.
For reference, 10 Downing Street is the British answer to the White House. Shane had attempted to bomb the U.K.'s Prime Minister.
"I'd hear about it on the radio, see notes on the street about letter bombs. After the first bomb I planted on Oxford Street, I rang the police and warned them. They didn't listen. That's when I realized the police were getting thousands of hoax bomb calls every day. So I called the press association, and the police gave them a code word: 'XX.' If it was a real bombing, that was the code I'd give. I was described then as the Baby-Faced Bomber, which wouldn't be inaccurate. I was 18, but I looked 14."