'/> Uncommon Hours: Who speaks for Bill Ayers?
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Monday, November 10, 2008

Who speaks for Bill Ayers?

(first posted at Midwest Voices, Oct. 15, 2008)

Here’s a pop quiz:

Who wrote these lines?

“All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly.”

The answer, perhaps hinted at in the title, is Bill Ayers, in a letter to the New York Times, published on Sept. 15, 2001.

I had known of Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, long before then, but coincidentally, I had just begun work on a novel, Where the Wind Blew, about a year earlier. My draft wasn’t completed until late 2005, and I did not finally see the book published until just a few months ago. It is the story of a man who participated in a bombing during the 1960s—but unlike Ayers, my character was responsible for the deaths of innocents, and now, decades later, he must face his past.

In 2001, I still had much research to do. I was drafting the early chapters and developing the outline when Ayers’ memoir, Fugitive Days, was published. His memoir was one of a number of books about the radical 1960s that I read. Some of the better memoirs include Jonah Raskin’s Out of the Whale, Jane Alpert’s Growing Up Underground, and Robert Pardun’s Prairie Radical. Of these, Alpert’s is the only figure whose group also resorted to the violent measures Ayers and the Weather Underground believed were the only way to stop the war.

That was then, forty years ago.

When Ayers was interviewed by a Times reporter in 2001, she painted him as a man without regrets and couldn’t refrain from writing such a sensationalist piece that Ayers had to repudiate it.

“No regrets for a love of explosives!” ran the headline—regardless of the fact that Ayers had said exactly the opposite. She had twisted words that Ayers used to describe the kind of long-distance warfare conducted anonymously by dropping bombs from high altitudes.

Ayers responded in the Times, “My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy.”

What I found, studying the writings by and about the key figures of the 1960s, was more than a sense of regret, which they all have in their own unique ways, but a profoundly complex view of a terrible chapter in our nation’s history. Over 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. I’ve touched some of their names on the Vietnam Wall in Washington with my fingertips while thinking of my own son deployed in Iraq and later in Afghanistan. As many as 3 million Vietnamese died, many killed by American bombs. But the nation’s leadership—then, as now, over these past seven years—seemed hell-bent on finding military solutions for its diplomatic failures. And now, similarly, we are learning more and more about Afghan civilians dying namelessly as American bombs fall from the sky.

I discovered, as the story of my novel unfolded and the characters found their voices, that the question of what would stop the war, what would make people listen, drove some opponents of the war to further and further extremes. As a novelist, I found great drama and fascinating people in this story. But representing them meant trying to see all the viewpoints of the times, then and now. One character, the wife of the former radical, has a moment of epiphany, late in the book, when she wonders what would have changed if some few people hadn’t been driven to extremes. I take the liberty of sharing a portion of that moment here:

“And she wondered, too, if he—if all those people like him back then—hadn’t done some of the things they did—maybe not…no, not all of them, but some of them—would anything have changed? It was true, she reasoned, that changing things meant rupturing what existed. That’s what was happening to her—right now. They had all been living on this thin, shiny veneer, living comfortable lives, fretting over trifles, burying themselves in the vicarious lives of celebrities, entertaining themselves with the false realities of reality television, but the veneer had cracked, and when they crashed through, nothing was underneath it, and they were still falling. And now she looked back up as she plunged downward and saw that all around her, that’s how others were living, though they didn’t know it yet, and anything could change their lives, just as hers changed. That was how she lived when she was young, too—while a war exploded, while the country nearly came apart. But she knew so little of what was beyond her small world. She’d been oblivious to everything else. Boyfriends, dances, dresses, music—that’s what that time meant to her, while all of this turmoil bubbled beneath it, and she wondered now, if everyone had just gone along like that, oblivious, indifferent, would the war have ever ended, would blacks still drink from separate water fountains, would the FBI spy on you?”

Ayers is now a respected professor of education professor at the University of Illinois – Chicago. During the 1990s, he sat on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, along with a number of others, including some Republicans and Barack Obama. The Challenge is dedicated to improving Chicago’s schools. It was funded by Walter Annenberg, who served as an ambassador in Richard Nixon’s administration.

The efforts of the McCain campaign to paint this relationship into something other than what it is smacks of desperation. Frankly, an Obama administration could do a lot worse than consult with Bill Ayers on education policy.

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