If someone asked you to name the most pivotal decade in United States history, what would you say? I'm sure the 1960s would get plenty of votes, and for good reason. I suppose I'd understand if someone made a case for the 1940s as well, when we managed to not only kill Hitler (or at least send him fleeing to South America) but also control the spin on the story in the ensuing years to such an extent that your racist grandparents are still sometimes called "The Greatest Generation." To each their own, but if you ask me, when it comes to events the shaped the world into what it is today, nothing comes close to the 1970s. We talk about it on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comic Jeff May and musician Danger Van Gorder. It's also what I'm talking about in this column here today. Let's get it!
5It's When We Truly Fell In Love With Guns
You know there are a lot of guns in this country, but do you know when that started? Well, in the most technical sense, I'm sure it started forever ago. I imagine there haven't been too many years of our existence as a nation when we weren't on the cutting edge of finding available free space to store our mountains of firearms.
That said, the percentage of households which reported owning at least one gun actually peaked in the mid-to-late-70s, when it rose above 50 percent.
So no more Flower Power, then?
The reason that happened isn't hard to pinpoint at all. It's because, from the very start of the decade, high-profile serial killers were making the news on the regular, and at least part of the reason for that was that they so often proved to be extremely hard to catch. In fact, the first killer to terrorize the '70s was never caught at all. He called himself the Zodiac. Speaking of guns, his weapon of choice was a .44 Magnum.
You know who this looks like? White dudes.
He was just the first in a long line of notorious killers to make headlines throughout that decade. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Hillside Strangler (which was actually a pair of cousins) ... if there was ever an ideal time to be a serial murderer, it was definitely the '70s. Just that so many of these stories surfaced at the same general time probably would have led to a spike in gun sales on its own, but it didn't help that some of the biggest names of all used guns to commit their crimes. Along with the aforementioned Zodiac Killer, the infamous "Son of Sam," who practically held NYC hostage with fear for more than a year, also relied exclusively on firearms.
And the advice of his neighbor's (apparently very naughty) dog.
It wasn't just those headline-grabbing crimes that made citizens of the '70s such avid consumers of weapons. All over the country, crime of all sorts became more common over the course of the decade. It's hard to say why for sure, except no it's not. As I've mentioned before, starting around the early '70s, de-institutionalization became all the rage. The number of available hospitals and beds for people suffering from mental illness in this country dropped dramatically. Huge numbers of mental patients were suddenly on the streets. What kind of impact did this have on crime numbers? Let's go to the charts!
This is a chart. As you can see, it displays things.
The solid line is the number of people institutionalized per 100,000 people in the United States over the years. The other line is homicides per 100,000 people in the United States. So, as a not at all unreasonable response to the dramatic uptick in crime in the '70s, the number of households that reported owning at least one gun skyrocketed. The percentage has gone down since, but not by a lot. If that doesn't strike you as an important turning point in the history of this country, you should watch the news more. On that note, let's talk about terrorism!
4We Learned How To Deal With Terrorism
You know what was the shit in the 1970s? Terrorism. Seriously, everybody seemed to be doing it. As much as we talk and worry about terrorism these days, you'd think we're dealing with bombs going off in federal buildings and shopping centers on a regular basis. We aren't, but we damn sure were in the 1970s.
I don't recall it being a thing we learned a whole lot about in school, but during the disco decade, bombings and hijackings were insanely common in the United States. Peter Bergen, a national security analyst at CNN, refers to the period as the "Golden Age of Terrorism." There were 40 acts of terrorism carried out in New York City over the course of the decade by just one Puerto Rican separatist group. The Jewish Defense League was blamed for another 27 attacks. And a whole host of others were up to the same kind of shenanigans.
I admit that "shenanigans" might be too lighthearted of a way to say "bombing the Pentagon."
It wasn't a phenomenon that was isolated to big cities like New York and Los Angeles. There were bombings in places like Madison, WI and Pittsburgh, PA. Someone blew up the Liberty Bell replica at the City Hall building in Portland, OR. Hell, even the Statue of Liberty got bombed at one point, albeit not until 1980.
One of the most active terrorist organization working on U.S. soil in the '70s was the Weather Underground. This was a group that legit declared war on the government and subsequently started blowing shit up in the name of carrying out that war. They kept this up for a long damn time in modern terms. Like, an entire decade. Imagine that happening now. We'd be furious if the government couldn't get a handle on that shit.
The reason we'd be furious is that, clearly, at some point they did get a handle on that shit. Bombings of this type are extremely rare now. Same thing with hijacked airplanes. We had a bit of an outbreak of that in the '70s as well. It shouldn't be too hard to wrap your head around how we cut down on the hijacking.
With lines. That's how.
We started screening bags and passengers. I know it sounds crazy, but we didn't always do that, so people sometimes brought bombs and weapons on board and acted up.
How we stopped angry fringe groups from blowing up buildings and infrastructure and such is a little less clear. We did it, obviously, or else you'd still see daily stories about angry radical groups setting off explosives in public to prove a point. Your relatives who were of reading age in the '70s definitely saw those stories on the regular. Again, I have no idea how we stopped it. Maybe if someone at the NSA is reading along as I write this, they'll consider hopping in after I log off to add an explanatory paragraph or two. Fingers crossed!