Three decades after the Weather Underground's end, he's still trying
to justify its means
BY CHARLES LANE - THE WASHINGTON POST
Edition Date: 12/13/08
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"
(reprinted by the Statesman Wednesday), 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
Some people might buy this, but not if they know the actual history -
as opposed to Ayers' 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
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' 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
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 anti-war movement. Bill Ayers should cut the
sophistry and admit it.
The writer is a member of The Washington Post's editorial page staff.