Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
The Burglary is a detailed, thorough, and utterly absorbing account of what had been a largely forgotten event. Before Edward Snowden, before Wikileaks or the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate scandal, peace activists broke into the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office in 1971, stealing virtually every file and finding proof that J. Edgar Hoover’s organization was aggressively working to demoralize, discredit, and break up legal citizen groups involved in the antiwar and civil rights movements.
The scope was staggering. Every black student organization in the country was actively under suspicion, for instance, and every African American attending nearby Swarthmore College was monitored. The revelations shocked the nation, and The Burglary vividly brings to light the agitated and highly polarized culture of the American Vietnam War era. It’s a time and event I have reason to remember well. Media, PA is my hometown, I was a high school student when the burglary was executed, and people I knew discovered that the local FBI office kept files on them.
Though now overshadowed by other events, the Media, PA burglary has had long lasting reform and oversight consequences which this book recounts in documented detail. Despite a massive FBI investigation the burglars were never caught and until very recently they never revealed their identities. For me, the most transfixing part of The Burglary tells the burglars’ varied, fascinating and often moving stories, before, during, and after the carefully planned but still terrifying heist that kept them on their guard for years.
The burglars were a diverse group, including a physics professor, a daycare director, and a taxi driver. One college age member of the group who’d dropped out of school to do what he could to stop the war trained himself to be an expert lock picker, then was young enough to be at loose ends and have to reinvent his life once they’d achieved their immediate goal. A married couple committed to ending the war had to think long and hard about what would happen to their young children if they were arrested, but once the burglary was over their daily family and job responsibilities helped them cope with the aftermath.
It’s a long book covering a number of aspects including the controlling mindset of Hoover’s FBI, the pains Hoover took to keep its illegal activities secret, the fervid but fruitless FBI investigation of the Media burglary, and the far reaching effects the burglary has had to this day. A final chapter considers the events of 1971 as they relate to post 9/11 surveillance activities and the Edward Snowden NSA files controversy.
Parts of the book read like a thriller, but this is a thriller with substance. Riveting, instructive and unsettling, The Burglary reanimated the zeitgeist and events of 1971 for me and it leaves me with a lot to think about.