By Charles Lane
Thursday, December 11, 2008
I never thought Barack Obama's acquaintance with former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers disqualified him for the White House. And now that Obama has been elected, his guilt by association with Ayers -- whose opposition to the Vietnam War turned violent during the 1960s and 1970s -- is not only a canard. It's also moot.
But Ayers won't let the issue die. He's got a book to sell and a misspent youth to rationalize.
In a Dec. 6 New York Times op-ed -- headlined "The Real Bill Ayers" -- Ayers cast himself as the victim of a "profoundly dishonest drama" in which he was branded an "unrepentant terrorist." He cops to "posturing" and "blind sectarianism" -- but insists that he never killed or hurt anyone and never intended to. His Weather Underground committed "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed against monuments to war and racism" -- not terrorism. Its bombings were surgical strikes "meant to respect human life."
Some people might buy this, but not if they know the actual history -- as opposed to Ayers's selective version. Ayers omits the 1969 "Days of Rage" riot in Chicago, spearheaded by his Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society. He kicked it off by helping to blow up a downtown police monument the night of Oct. 6, 1969; the blast showered rubble on a nearby expressway and shattered more than 100 windows.
If a warning to the public preceded this strike, Ayers doesn't mention it in his 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days" -- nor does contemporaneous media coverage. In fact, a bus driver told police that his vehicle stalled near the statue a half-hour before the blast; he would have been a sitting duck 30 minutes later. Days afterward, Ayers and other club-wielding leftists fought and injured police officers and smashed storefronts and cars. A government attorney tried to tackle one of them and wound up paralyzed.
In his Times column, Ayers's chronology focuses on 1970, the year he co-founded the Weather Underground "after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village." But this wasn't some especially radicalizing furnace mishap. On March 6, 1970, three members of a Weatherman cell died when a bomb they were making blew up in their faces. Packed with nails for maximum lethality, it had been intended for a noncommissioned officers' dance at Fort Dix, N.J.
Only then did the Weatherman faction mutate into the Weather Underground -- and begin issuing pre-detonation warnings. Even so, it was still a matter of luck that there were no casualties.
As Todd Gitlin, a former '60s leftist and a historian of the period, put it: "They planned on being terrorists. Then their bomb blew up and killed several of them and they thought better of it. They were failed terrorists."
Ayers told me this week that he did not know about the nail bomb in advance -- and condemned it afterward. I take him at his word. So why obfuscate in the Times? Editors cut the article, he protested -- before conceding that his original version left it out, too.
His refutation of the "terrorist" charge relies, ironically, on the U.S. government's definition: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." "We did not do that," Ayers insisted.
To some, the U.S. Capitol, a Weather Underground target, might qualify as "non-combatant." But Ayers said it was fair game: The U.S. invasion of Laos and Cambodia made it "a symbol of empire."
Ayers has been singing this tune for years. In a 1976 tract, he called for "revolutionary violence," as long as it was "humane." By then the war was over, and his goal was "to build communist organization toward the stage where armed struggle becomes a mass phenomenon led by a Marxist-Leninist party: a revolutionary stage." His crazy means were dictating even crazier ends.
Hardly the worst crimes of that turbulent era, the Weather Underground's deeds were nevertheless immoral. They put innocents at risk and sowed fear. Ultimately, they achieved nothing except to undermine the peaceful antiwar movement. Bill Ayers should cut the sophistry and admit it.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.