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Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: A Memoir

(Boston, Mass; Beacon Press, 2001, $24.00) ; 293pp.

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A Tale of Two Terrorists: The International New Left Confronts Its History

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Ronald Radosh Archive


The Mind of a New Left Terrorist | November 27, 2001

POOR BILL AYERS. His timing could not have been worse. Just when his over-hyped memoir of his years as a leader of the Weather Underground was about to come out, our nation suffered the worst terrorist assault in its history. Indeed, the very day of the attack, we opened our New York Times daily Arts section, only to be confronted with 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 glamorous couple, writer Dinitia Smith tells us straight off that Ayers proudly says: "I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough." Ayers takes responsibility himself for a bombing of the New York City police headquarters in 1970, the Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972. When asked whether he would do it again, Ayers responded: "I don’t want to discount the possibility." Or as he writes in the memoir, "I can’t imagine entirely dismissing the possibility, either."

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And since the paper of record prints its Sunday Magazine section in advance, they were not able to pull from circulation the next weekend’s edition, which featured yet again another fawning interview with Ayers. Conducted by a young writer whose own parents were comrades of Ayers in the terrorist left-wing group, Ayers lets us know immediately that he still knows that America "is not a just and fair and decent place." These words of wisdom come from a man who is now a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and who brags at the end of his memoir, that he is "Guilty as hell, free as a bird – it’s a great country." As for those who believe that America is indeed a great country, Ayers has one reaction: "It makes me want to puke."

Indeed, that is similar to the reaction I had when reading his dishonest, disturbed and self-serving "memoir," which, according to his own description, is "not exactly the truth," although Ayers claims it "feels entirely honest" to him. In the magazine interview, he contradicts what he writes in the book, acknowledging that although he did not purposely leave things out, he was writing about "how it felt to me." This means, evidently, that not everything he describes is actually what happened. As we shall see, Ayers actually distorts and leaves out incidents that had he talked honestly about them, would appear quite damning.

The Weathermen – later the Weather Underground – were the last stage offshoot of what began as a mass student protest group, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The group held the first student antiwar rallies in the nation’s capitol and organized large chapters in virtually all of the major American universities. Eventually, SDS floundered apart as it split into two distinct bodies – those gravitating towards a traditional Marxist approach that emphasized organizing the working class, and those spurred on by visions of revolution in the Third World who were inspired by Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-Tung. This latter group opted for trying to forge a homespun guerrilla army of covert terrorists. They sought to be warriors who would attempt, as they used to say, to "bring the monster down" by using violence against those living in "the belly of the beast." The latter group named themselves the Weathermen. They took over one of the last SDS formal conventions, and with the different factions raising Mao’s "Little Red Book" and screaming at each other, the Weathermen – who took their name from a line in a Bob Dylan song: "you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" – became in effect the only remaining remnant of the once vibrant SDS. (Opponents of the Weatherman faction retorted "You don’t need a thermometer to know who the assholes are," a retort not presented in Ayers’ book.)

Rather than condemn the violence and nihilism of the New Left, Ayers seeks to bring his readers along so that they come to understand the thought process that led him and his comrades to move towards terrorism. He would have us believe that they moved out of decent motives to cross the line from dissent to a restrained and purposeful form of what others call terrorism, but which he sees only as "resistance." They were not terrorists, he protests. Terrorists seek to harm average people – men, women and children – without regard to the target. He and his comrades, he asserts in contrast, claimed "half a dozen bombings," magnified "because of the symbolic nature of the target, the deliberate and judicious nature of the blow." They were only trying to prove "that a homegrown guerrilla movement was afoot in America." Thus they bombed police stations, statues memorializing those they considered oppressors, ROTC buildings, armed forces draft offices, and corporate headquarters.

Of course, their decision to move to bombing came at a great cost – the March 6, 1970 Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, in which Ayers’ first Movement girlfriend, Diana Oughton, and his Weatherman comrades Ted Gold and Terry Robbins, were killed as the bomb they were constructing accidentally went off, demolishing the town house as well as ending their own lives. Ayers actually begins the book with a portrait of how he heard the news. Already underground, Ayers waited by an isolated phone booth for his weekly report to be phoned in. Shattered, Ayers takes us through the life in which his comrades move to that terrible moment. It was "playing at a deadly politics," he admits. But what disturbs him is that others, following their leadership, were preparing similar bombs. Now, after the realization that they were destroying themselves, Ayers writes, mimicking Che Guevara, "we dreaded the possibility of two, three, many Townhouses." If they could be assured bombs would hit only their chosen targets, they might have advised continuing. Instead, he writes, they "hoped to use our celebrity in the lunatic left… to persuade others to pull back."

What Ayers does not tell us, and other histories of the Weather Underground make quite clear, is that the bomb that went off in the Village townhouse was an antipersonnel bomb, meant to be placed at a forthcoming dance at the army base in Fort Dix, New Jersey. Had it exploded at its chosen target, thousands of GI’s and their dates would have been killed, and large buildings at the base would have been destroyed. Somehow, Ayers forgets this well-known fact. Instead, when others refer to his movement as terrorist, he writes "we’re not terrorists," but only political activists who "came close" to terrorism. The distinction that he claims is that terrorists "terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore…the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate." Somehow, those GI’s he might have killed, or the police he might have murdered had a bomb he planted in a Chicago station gone off, obviously do not count as illegitimate targets, because they are not "civilians." And the dates of the GI’s, or the civilians working at the police station, must be in his mind guilty by association. And in his mind, today, he still thinks that his actions would have been understood by the mass antiwar movement as a new means of "educating" people about the horrors of Vietnam. And this man, now a prominent university educator, wants us to think that he never was a terrorist.

Instead, of course, Ayers resorts to standard left-wing clichés that explain his actions. The US was a racist country; Klan members lynched black people; the US waged terror regularly against the peoples of the Third World. They were only bringing the nation’s own medicine home to its practitioners. Indeed, despite his numerous disclaimers that he was never a terrorist, Ayers cannot help but emote about the power and virtues of bomb and dynamite. He reprints a verse his comrade Terry Robbins came across in Alarm!, an anarchist paper published by Albert Parsons, one of the fabled Haymarket anarchists who at the end of a labor rally in Chicago, set off a bomb that killed seven police officers in 1886. The "poem"—written by the German anarchist émigré Johann Most, is an ode to the powers and beauty of dynamite. "Of all the good stuff," Most wrote, "that is the stuff! 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. In giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe, science has done its best work." Indeed, Ayers acted upon his advice and stuffed such a fuse into Chicago police headquarters, only to find that his dynamite bomb failed to go off. He says nothing to indicate that had the blast taken effect, he would not have considered it "cheerful and gratifying."

Indeed, throughout the book, he often ends with words such as "bombs away." The murderous Islamic fascists who destroyed the World Trade Center and a section of the Pentagon, and destroyed almost 7000 lives, would be happy to have had Ayers’ book as a guide, despite his protestations. On one page, after witnessing riots and the aftermath of 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.

It is passages like the above, being read in the context of America’s new war, that have obviously disturbed both the publisher of Ayers’ book as well as its author, who suddenly do not want their book to be seen as any kind of endorsement of what our country has just suffered. Indeed, had the major terrorist assaults not taken place, the publisher was set to send Ayers off on a twenty-city tour, and the usual suspects among our naïve and trendy intellectuals were fighting each other to sing Ayers’ praises. Edward Said, Columbia University’s own most prominent radical intellectual blurbs the book for "its marvelous human coherence and integrity," and he is pleased that it shows "no trace of nostalgia or ‘second thinking.’" Studs Terkel calls the memoir a "deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world." Thomas Frank sees Ayers as a man who took a "quintessentially American trip." Quintessentially American; living decently; what, one wonders, do these esteemed authors think indecent behavior is, and what and how most Americans live? Then Scott Turow in his blurb regrets that Ayers’ "critical point of view" is one we are "barely able to recall."

The recent attacks, in fact, show how we are unfortunately able to recall it all too well. They have provided evidence that throughout the world, there are many who still hold to their demented terrorist dreams, people who are in effect blood brothers and comrades of Bill Ayers. In its press release after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Beacon Press released a statement from Ayers himself, one that was also printed as a shorter letter in The New York Times, a paper which has not to date seen fit to run any of the scores of letters it received opposed to Ayers. Ayers refers to "the barbarism unleashed against innocent human beings" as a "nightmare," and claims he too is "filled with horror and grief." He claims in his self-serving last ditch attempt to keep people reading his memoir that the book is "now receiving attention in a radically changed context;" he asks that we not "collapse time" and act as if his own words somehow apply to the United States today. His book, he says, is simply an effort to explore his own struggle with "the intricate relationships between social justice, commitment and resistance."

These words – this crude rationale – can of course be stated by any Islamic fascist, by any Palestinian extremist, all of whom, along with Ayers, claim they are not glorifying violence, but only "resisting" the American oppressors. Now Ayers sheds his crocodile tears and says that the intent of his book is simply "to understand, to tell the truth, and to heal." The truth. Does Ayers have an ounce of indication of what "the truth" even means?

His book suggests the opposite. I searched in vain for his account of the momentous so-called "Flint War Council" held by the Weatherman in Flint, Michigan in December 1969. Had he dealt with this event, of which he and his comrade and now wife, Bernardine Dohrn, were key players, it would belie the claim he made to a Chicago Tribune writer that "we were ordinary people trying to do our best in extraordinarily extreme and violent times." The best? At the Flint meeting, which they called a "War Council," delegates were greeted by a large cardboard cutout of a machine gun. It was here, as Peter Collier and David Horowitz reported years ago, Dohrn admonished the four hundred Weather terrorists to stop being "wimpy" and "scared of fighting;" and to pick up the gun and "get into armed struggle." It was during this speech that Dohrn invoked the example of Charles Manson, who had killed Sharon Tate and all her houseguests in the Los Angeles hills, and stated: "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;" a new replacement for the old Communist clenched fist.

Dohrn was followed by one of their dear friends, John Jacobs, whom everyone called J.J. He told the crowd "we’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy." After the speeches, the delegates tended to more important matters: how to get weapons, make bombs and rent "safe houses." Then they all retreated to a Catholic Church, where they engaged in compulsory group sex – holding true to their commitment to smash monogamy. And this behavior and event is obviously intentionally missing from Ayers’ book, because it would cast an image different from that which Ayers seeks to create – that of a well-intentioned opponent of the Vietnam War who was forced by official US "terror" to take extreme but understandable actions.

Unfortunately, Ayers’ rationale seems to be accepted and repeated by many who should know better. Writing in The New York Observer, (before the Sept.11 attack on the USA but in an issue dated Sept.23), Ron Rosenbaum, usually a careful and thoughtful writer, waxes ecstatic about Ayers. Indeed, Rosenbaum admits that at Yale, where he was an antiwar activist on the Left, Rosenbaum had a "predisposition" toward the Weather Underground when the traditional Marxist-Leninists attacked them as "adventurist." But buying Ayers’ arguments, Rosenbaum agrees that since the US was killing innocent civilians with its bombs, then there was some merit to the "terrible logic of their convictions;" that one simply had to take excessive action to stop the war machine. Rosenbaum reads the same memoir I have just read and somehow thinks it is absent of "self-righteousness and self-justification;" precisely the factors Ayers’ book reeks of. He sees Ayers conceding errors and expressing remorse. It makes one wonder what ‘60s drug Rosenbaum was taking when he wrote his article.

Rosenbaum quotes a much-noted passage from the Ayers book, chilling after the events of Sept. 11. "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them." Perhaps Osama bin Laden had given this passage out to his crew before they hijacked the plane that killed so many. Perhaps Bill Ayers, sitting in his UIC office, shared the same response bin Laden had when he got the news that dreadful morning, before Ayers’ press agent suggested he better come out with a statement suggesting otherwise. Yet Rosenbaum, admitting that the group’s "strategies and tactics look self-destructive in hindsight," praises them for "the courage of their convictions, the Narodnik soul of their collective saga." And he praises them for having "emerged from the underground without betraying their principles – or each other."

No wonder. Why should they, when their lies and prattle are praised by the mainstream press, which seemed intent – before September 11 – on making them into new culture heroes. Ayers, born to great privilege, was the son of Tom Ayers, the CEO of Commonwealth Edison, Chicago’s electric company. He seeks to keep this too from his readers, preferring to simply say that his father "worked" for Edison. Aside from arguing with his son and always admonishing that he should get a haircut, the father seems to engage in filial pride for his wayward son – proud of his actions even though had he been successful, he probably would have blown up Edison’s own corporate headquarters. (Of course, he would have warned Dad first to vacate the premises.) He is a man in love with his years of violence. Read his account of the Days of Rage, a riot the Weatherman organized in Chicago, and his description of his lover Bernardine Dohrn – admonishing her troops to violence wearing a "short skirt and high stylist black boots…Her blazing eyes …allied with her elegance….a stunning and seductive symbol of the Revolutionary Woman." Ayers tells us that J. Edgar Hoover called Dohrn "La Pasionaria of the Lunatic Left," a comment that has more wisdom and truth to it than virtually anything in Ayers’ entire memoir.

Some would like to separate the rest of the so-called moderate New Left from the Weatherman. Todd Gitlin, one of SDS’s first leaders, has condemned Ayers as a "failed terrorist," and accuses him of responsibility for destroying what he saw as becoming a mass democratic Left. We are so often told by Gitlin and others that Tom Hayden, who wrote the famed SDS Port Huron statement in the movement’s early days, showed the possibility of a true democratic radicalism. Hayden gave the New Left the alternative of entering into the nation’s democratic political structure and waging a serious political fight for left-wing social policies within the two-party system. It is therefore good that Ayers reminds us of Hayden’s speech to the Weatherman at their Days of Rage, when Hayden 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." You won’t find this in Hayden’s own memoir, but it gives the lie to those who argue that there is simply no connection between the early humanist New Left and the later Weathermen.

Indeed, Ayers ends his book without even acknowledging that after the group broke up, several of its most important cadre – including the former lower level leader Kathy Boudin – ended up joining in terrorist actions in support of the ultra violent so-called Black Liberation Army. Boudin ended up in prison for life for her role in the 1981 Brinks robbery and murder, in which her comrades killed a black cop. The Weather Underground broke apart in a 1930s-style Communist purge, as old hard-line Stalinists Ayers and Dohrn had recruited took the group over, purging many for various deviations. Indeed, Dohrn and Ayers themselves were put on trial for promoting "crimes against national liberation struggles, women and the anti-imperialist left." Like the old Stalinists, they readily confessed to their crimes before the new Central Committee, of which Dohrn had taken Stalin’s title as General Secretary.

Many of them then joined the new May 19th Communist organization, which became a support group for the terrorist Black Liberation Army, the group which pulled off the Brinks robbery and murder with Boudin and Gilbert’s participation. With these two in prison for life, Ayers and Dohrn agreed to raise Boudin and Gilbert’s child as their own. Yet the actions of Boudin and Gilbert, who followed through on the logic and policy of Ayers’ beloved Weathermen, are somehow not discussed. After all, Ayers admits that he sent support messages to the BLA, and let them know they "agreed" with them. Does not this make himself and Dohrn also responsible for their acts of murder?

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 comrade’s young lives, and in June, the two travel each year to the site of John Brown’s home, to pay homage to a previous century’s demented lunatic who killed in the name of a good cause. Of course, 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 brings up the brave GIs 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 Washington, DC near the Vietnam Memorial, a fact that shows that our military leaders understand that war crimes are not to be passed over, and that those who sought to prevent them taking place are to be honored. Ayers dares to compare these GIs’ heroic and selfless action to that of Diana Oughton, Ted Gold and Terry Robbins, who died making a bomb meant to blow up other GIs at their base in New Jersey. "How much longer," he writes, will it take to honor "the three who died on Eleventh Street? How much longer for Diana? When will she be remembered?"

That passage shows, for those who have doubts, how little Bill Ayers has learned. He still thinks he and his comrades should be forgiven, because their terrorism was but "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." Sorry, Bill. America will not ever honor your dead comrades; nor will it honor or hold the likes of you in any kind of esteem. Ayers still thinks, he writes, that today America "shatters community everywhere," which if true, would mean that this realization will bring forth a new generation of terrorists, ready to carry on the fight. Preparing for his now cancelled tour, Ayers posed for a photo with the American flag crumbled in weeds underneath his feet. This man still hates America, and seeks its destruction. No press release will work to undermine this truth.

Ronald Radosh is author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, (Encounter Books,2001,) and is a columnist for

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