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.
Despite his numerous disclaimers that he was never a terrorist, Ayers often emotes about the mystical wonder of bombs. He reprints a verse in praise of dynamite by the nineteenth-century anarchist Johann Most: "Stuff several pounds of this sublime stuff into an inch of pipe,...plug up both ends, insert a cap with a fuse attached,...and light the fuse. A most cheerful and gratifying result will follow." Throughout the book, he often ends with such words as "Bombs away!" After witnessing riots and a shoot-out between police and black radicals in Cleveland—a murderous assault he calls a "loving attempt...to change so much of what was glaringly, screamingly wrong"—Ayers writes:
"Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down."
The extraordinary mau-mauing that convinced the New York Times to print not just one but two obsequious profiles of Bill Ayers was only part of the publisher’s plan for promoting Fugitive Days. Had the events of September 11 not taken place, Ayers would have embarked on a twenty-city book tour. Ron Rosenbaum, writing in the New York Observer, found some merit to the "terrible logic" of the terrorists’ "convictions," praised them for having "emerged from the underground without betraying their principles." Edward Said, Columbia University’s own radical intellectual, blurbed the book for "its marvelous human coherence and integrity." Studs Terkel called it a "deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world." Thomas Frank declared Ayers a man who took a "quintessentially American trip," and Scott Turow in his blurb regrets that Ayers’s "critical point of view" is one we are "barely able to recall."
THE WORLD TRADE CENTER SEEMS to show that we are able to recall it all too well. In its press release after the attacks, Beacon Press printed a statement from Ayers (also printed, in shorter form, in the New York Times, though the Times has not printed any of the scores of letters it received protesting Ayers’s double appearance in its pages). In the statement, Ayers refers to "the barbarism unleashed against innocent human beings" as a "nightmare" and claims he is "filled with horror and grief." Noticing that his memoir is "now receiving attention in a radically changed context," he asks that we not "collapse time" and imagine that his words apply to the United States today. Fugitive Days, Ayers says, is simply his effort to explore "the intricate relationships between social justice, commitment, and resistance"—and "to understand, to tell the truth, and to heal."
Not surprisingly, to read Fugitive Days is to discover that Bill Ayers intended precisely the opposite when he wrote it. "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon," he rhapsodizes. "The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them."
Ayers and his comrade (and now wife) Bernardine Dohrn were merely "ordinary people," he recently explained to the Chicago Tribune, "trying to do our best in extraordinarily extreme and violent times." But Ayers remains, in fact, a man in love with his years of violence. In his account of the "Days of Rage," the October 1969 riot the Weathermen organized in Chicago, he describes Dohrn admonishing her troops to violence wearing a "short skirt and high stylish black boots....Her blazing eyes...allied with her elegance,...a stunning and seductive symbol of the Revolutionary Woman." (Ayers also reminds us that it was at the Days of Rage that Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS, told the rioters, "Anything that intensifies our resistance...is in the service of humanity. The Weathermen are setting the terms for all of us now.")
CURIOUSLY, YOU WON’T FIND IN AYERS’S PAGES an account of the "War Council" held by the Weather Underground in Flint, Michigan, in December 1969, at which he and Dohrn were key players. It was at the Flint War Council that Dohrn admonished the four hundred delegates to stop being "wimpy" and "scared of fighting," and to "get into armed struggle." Invoking the example of Charles Manson, who had killed Sharon Tate and all her houseguests in the Los Angeles hills, Dohrn declared, "Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!" She closed her speech by holding up three fingers in what she called the "Manson fork salute." Dohrn was followed by one of Ayers’s friends, John Jacobs, who told the crowd, "We’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy." The delegates then discussed how to get weapons, make bombs, and rent "safe houses"—after which they broke into a nearby Catholic Church to engage in group sex.
Similarly, Ayers never acknowledges that later terrorism followed directly from his example and his policy. After the Weather Underground collapsed, many of his old comrades joined the new May 19th Communist organization, which became a support group for the ultra-violent Black Liberation Army. Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, for instance, ended up in prison for life for their role in the Black Liberation Army’s 1981 Brinks Robbery, in which a black cop was murdered. (Ayers and Dohrn took in Boudin and Gilbert’s child after their imprisonment.)
Ayers ends with the scene of rejoicing as he and Dohrn watched the television images of America’s defeat in Vietnam. "We were overjoyed," he writes, and they "spent several days celebrating, laughing and crying." Today, they still go every March 6 to put flowers on the site of the Village townhouse where their own bombs destroyed their comrades’ young lives. They also traveled to Vietnam, to pay homage to Ho Chi Minh at his grave.
In perhaps the most disgusting pages of the book, Ayers describes the brave American soldiers who, coming upon the My Lai massacre in 1968, landed their helicopter and tried to save Vietnamese civilians from other American troops gone mad. This action was finally acknowledged by an official government ceremony in 1998. But Ayers mentions these soldiers only to compare them to Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins—who died making a bomb meant to blow up other American soldiers at Fort Dix. "How much longer" will it take to honor "the three who died on Eleventh Street?" he demands. "How much longer for Diana? When will she be remembered?"
BILL AYERS HAS LEARNED NOTHING in the years since he was a terrorist. He still thinks he and his comrades should be forgiven, because their terrorism was "propaganda of the deed" meant to "blaze away the masters of war," a cause for which he used "explosive words at first, slowly replaced by actual bombs." He still thinks that America "shatters community everywhere"—and intends the publication of Fugitive Days to encourage another generation of terrorists against the United States, however much he has tried to deny that intention in the days since the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Preparing for his book tour, Ayers posed for a publicity photo with the American flag crumbled in weeds underneath his feet. This man still hates America and seeks its destruction.
Ronald Radosh’s most recent book is Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, published by Encounter Books.