The Magazine

Don't Need a Weatherman

The clouded mind of Bill Ayers.

Oct 8, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 04 • By RONALD RADOSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

POOR BILL AYERS. His timing could not have been worse. Just when his widely publicized memoir of his days as a terrorist was coming out, our nation suffered its worst terrorist assault ever.

Indeed, the very morning of the attack, the New York Times printed a fawning profile of Ayers and his comrade in terror, Bernardine Dohrn. Under the headline "No Regrets for a Love of Explosives," accompanied by a large color photo of the couple, Ayers boasts that he bombed New York City’s police headquarters in 1970, the Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972—and proudly adds, "I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough." Asked whether he would do it again, he answers, "I don’t want to discount the possibility." Or, as he puts it in Fugitive Days: A Memoir, "I can’t imagine entirely dismissing the possibility."

Given the timing, the New York Times may have regretted printing the piece, but worse was to come—for, five days after the destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorists, the newspaper printed yet another flattering interview with the terrorist. (The story appeared in the Sunday magazine section of the paper, which the Times had printed before the attacks.) In this second interview—conducted by a writer whose parents were comrades of Ayers in the Weather Underground—Ayers lets us know that America "is not a just and fair and decent place." This, from the man who is now a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and who brags at the end of Fugitive Days that he is "Guilty as hell, free as a bird—it’s a great country." As for those who might believe without irony that America is a great country, Ayers has one reaction: "It makes me want to puke."

Bill Ayers belonged to a late offshoot of what began in 1962 as a protest group, the Students for a Democratic Society. SDS subsequently held the first student antiwar rallies in Washington, D.C., and organized large chapters in nearly all major American universities. By June 1969, it had split into two distinct groups—those with a traditional Marxist approach aimed at organizing the working class, and those spurred on by visions of revolution in the Third World. This latter group, inspired by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong, opted for a homespun guerrilla army of covert terrorists. Deciding to become warriors who would, as they used to say, "bring the monster down" by using violence against those living in "the belly of the beast," they named themselves "the Weathermen" (after a line in a Bob Dylan song: You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows).

All that was more than thirty years ago, but Bill Ayers still looks back with fondness on the violence of what was called in those days the "New Left." Indeed, in Fugitive Days, he attempts to bring his readers to share his reasoning. He and his comrades were moved, he insists, by the most decent of motives to undertake, not terrorism, but a restrained and purposeful form of "resistance." Terrorists seek to harm average people—men, women, and children—without regard to the target. For the Weather Underground, "the symbolic nature of the target" was paramount. They were only trying to prove "that a homegrown guerrilla movement was afoot in America," and thus they bombed police stations, statues to those they considered oppressors, ROTC buildings, draft offices, and corporate headquarters.

OF COURSE, THEIR DECISION TO MOVE to bombing came at a cost. On March 6, 1970, a bomb they were constructing in their Greenwich Village townhouse accidentally exploded, killing Ayers’s girlfriend Diana Oughton and his Weatherman comrades Ted Gold and Terry Robbins. Ayers begins his book with a portrait of how he heard the news, waiting by an isolated phone booth for his weekly report to be phoned in. Shattered, Ayers realized that they were destroying themselves and the time had come to quit.

What Ayers does not mention is that the bomb that killed his friends was an antipersonnel bomb meant for an army dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Had it exploded at its chosen target, thousands of soldiers and their dates would have been killed. "Terrorists destroy randomly," he writes, "while our actions bore...the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate." Somehow, the GIs his comrades aimed to kill—or the policemen he might have murdered had a bomb he planted in a Chicago station gone off—do not count. And the GIs’ dates, and the civilians working at the police station, also do not count. Their deaths would simply have been a way of educating people—as Bill Ayers continues to educate them at the University of Illinois, Chicago.