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William Ayers

December 15, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

I hardly need to review the ways in which the McCain campaign twisted the relationship between Barack Obama and William Ayers during the presidential campaign this fall, the low point being Palin’s description of Obama as “palling around with terrorists.” Ayers remained mute throughout the campaign, but he spoke up in a New York Times op-ed piece recently.

I was very disappointed in what he had to say. The passage that most troubled me was the following:

We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war.

Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends.

I don’t understand in what sense “symbolic acts of extreme vandalism” fall short of being terrorism. Here in Seattle, in May 2001, members of the Earth Liberation Front set fire to an office at the University of Washington’s Urban Horticultural Center, destroying a building as well as the research, contained within the intended office, of Professor Toby Bradshaw. Their choice of Professor Bradshaw’s research as a target reflected enormous ignorance on their part as to what he was doing, but my point is that this was an act of terrorism — eco-terrorism, just as the work of the Weather Underground was terrorism.

For other comments, on Ayers op-ed, see hilzoy and Katha Pollitt. Here are Pollitt’s closing two paragraphs:

I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left. Not another “regrets, I’ve had a few,” “we were all young once,” “don’t forget there was a war on” exercise in self-promotion, but one that showed he actually gets it. I’d like him to say he’s sorry for his part in the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society. He’s sorry he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people. He’s sorry for his more-radical-than-thou posturing, and the climate of apocalyptic nuttiness he helped fuel to disastrous results, of which the fatal Brinks robbery, committed by erstwhile comrades who became even crazier than Ayers’ crew, was only the most notorious.

True, the damage wrought by the Weatherpeople is trivial compared with the war itself and has arguably been more thoroughly denounced. After all, John McCain most likely killed civilians while bombing Vietnam, and he got to run for president as a war hero. Henry Kissinger is fawned upon wherever he goes. I’d be happy to forget all about the Weatherpeople, many of whom have done good things with their lives since. But if we’re going to talk about them– and Ayers can’t leave it alone– let’s tell the truth. Of all the sectarian groups from that era , Weather, in all its permutations, was the least effective and the most destructive to the movement. It was all about the romance of itself. And it still is.

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