Weatherman-in-retirement William Ayers was irritated when reporters called him after September 11 to ask questions about terrorism, fanatics, living underground in America, and acquiring false identification. He declined the media requests: "I don't possess any particular insight into any of those matters."
That is not true, as anyone can tell from reading Ayers's book. But reporters had other reasons for thinking Mr. Ayers would make a good interview. On the very morning of September 11, 2001, the New York Times published a notice of his new memoir, Fugitive Days and quoted him saying "I don't regret setting bombs…In fact I don't think we did enough." By coincidence, a few hours after the Times appeared, New York was bled like Pearl Harbor and smoking with economic damage that would come to cost as much as a $100 billion.
Two years on, the unrepentant Mr. Ayers republished his self-tribute to the fiery days of the early 1970s, when the Weathermen tried to lead the Vietnam War protest movement into a new campaign to "Bring the War Home." ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.") Sabotage, bombings, "Days of Rage" training for fighting police, flagrant pro-Hanoi propaganda, trips to Cuba for Bernardine Dohrn and others, and a bevy of other activities followed. The Weather Underground's decline came for many reasons: U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, individual arrests, Maoist self-purges, and a dynamite accident that killed three leaders in their borrowed Greenwich Village townhouse. They were making a nail bomb.
"But I'm not a fighterI'm a lover." The Ayers memoir brings to mind that clichéd comic moment in too many television shows when the quick-witted fellow is being jacked up against the wall by the thug twice his size. Warm good will is proffered to prevent a beating. Perhaps here, too. The real Bill Ayers, we are earnestly told, was in it mostly for love. His love for his mother is one leitmotif of the book. He warms to sexual memories of women he knew in the movement. His greatest loss is the death of lover and Weathergirl Dianna Oughton in that townhouse blast. Later, Ayers is the dutiful and thrilled father of babies to Ms. Dohrn, the Chicago law graduate and a key leader of the movement. Ayers recalls his devotion to community organizing. His love of black Americans is noble and nearly boundless. And he describes how deeply moved he used to be by a simple picture of any anonymous Vietnamese during the war.
America deserved hatred, Ayers explains. He thought the government fascist, its leaders obsessed with bombing foreign countries (from Hiroshima to Hanoi), and its society a sick class system run by loathsome whites. All this was doctrine among the Weathermen. Ayers makes no effort to hide those views in the present writing; indeed, he trumps up the "inherent violence" of the America of that time to justify the bombings and brutalities by his organization. The reader is expected to see the militants' efforts as purely retaliatory, and almost puny, compared with the institutionalized violence of the American police system and its Pentagon. The vivid violence of Ayers's book is thus at government hands, while the spirit of the underground is that of exhilarating marches, street clashes, and other "courageous" activism. No crippled policeman, or shrapnel-slashed office worker, is identified by name in Ayers's pages. Deftly, he distances himself from the serious violence; the real work with dynamite or guns is always somebody else's, usually persons more extreme than he within the Weathermen.
Perhaps. Larry Grathwohl remembers those years differently. Recruited into the Weathermen, who valued his limited military experience, the Cincinnati resident worked with Ayers. Grathwohl found Ayers hard to love; he seemed self-important, a controller of subordinates, the type who loved to give orders. Ayers was a key leader. Grathwohl, a government informant, wrote that Ayers had a helped direct a pair of attempted police building bombings in Detroit in February 1970. After doing his assigned job in reconnaissance, Grathwohl disagreed with Mr. Ayers over the placement of one bomb, which could easily kill black patrons who favored an adjacent restaurant, but that Ayers dismissed such sentimentality as unrevolutionary. The informant was glad to be dismissed from the operation by Ayers. Forty-four sticks of dynamite were then formed into two bombs and put into place, before Grathwohl's information allowed police to dismantle both. Ayers's memoirwhich freely admits to incompletenesssays nothing of this episode, or Detroit, or the month of February 1970. He writes at great length, however, about his astonishment and emotion when the townhouse explodes in New York a few weeks later.
We now have several decades worth of literature by terrorists and their apologists, and what is most interesting about them is the skein of ideas, ideals, and misplaced love in which they wrap the bodies after their actions. Apart from the Vietnam War, what most imbues this particular memoir is the notion that civil rights are only won by violence. There is many a struggler for justice in American history whose name is brought out. Famous crusaders for civil rights and many opponents of slavery are evoked (although Martin Luther King's nonviolence is forgotten, and Abraham Lincoln, who effectively abolished slavery, is excluded for obvious reasons). Another line of argument, different but equally contemptuous of pacific democratic political change, is that of Marxism. Now that Che Guevara is fashionable again, it is fascinating to read of Ayers in his own bedroom, dominated by a gigantic poster of the man in the beret. Writes Ayers: "I was a revolutionary anarcho-communist…small c, intent on overthrowing the government, a worthy if immodest goal."
There have been many educated terrorists, including Weathermen. Even more disconcerting is the realization that some like Mark Rudd have gone on to become professional educators. Rudd's former accomplices, Bill Ayers and Dianna Oughton, worked in a pre-school during their years in the movement, and today he is "Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago." The author of several books, including A Kind and Just Parent, Ayers knows a lot about shaping with words. If one must deprecate the post-World War II era in America, as any fashionable intellectual is wont to do, then one should be able to do it as well as Ayers, writing of the "childlike fifties in the privileged and padded suburbs of America." He can charm, as well: "I read The Communist Manifesto first because it was short."
Such prose makes this reading interesting, and at times delectable. But along the way, one is asked to swallow more than is possible.