Acts of War

“For me and a small group of people I’m very close to today,” Bill Ayers is saying, “for some reason our identification with the Vietnamese as a people became personal, intense, and unbreakable. I identified so closely with them I wanted what they wanted. In other words, I was willing to shoot down the American planes dropping bombs on their people. My motives are largely unknown to me. They’re a mixture of chance and circumstance and self-delusion and self-aggrandizement and a lot else. But at the end of the day, my motive was to end the war in Vietnam now, today, by any means necessary. I felt that so strongly it consumed me.”

If Ayers is saying he lost his bearings he’ll have trouble finding an argument. “There’s a great desire not only to get me to apologize,” he says, “but there’s also a great desire to say that we were crazy. That’s so widespread–on the left as well as in the mainstream. It’s hugely important to note we were out of our minds.”

Ayers followed a path in the 60s, from suburban child of privilege to enemy of the state, that for most of its length was heavily traveled. But he and a handful of others pushed past the apparent point of no return. “Each step was full of dread and uncertainty,” he tells me. “But I took each step, for better or worse. But when I look back I’m not ashamed.”

The great accomplishment of Ayers’s new memoir, Fugitive Days: On the Run in America, is to make each step coherent. Where he went as a member of the Weather Underground doesn’t appall him, though what he became might. Years later he watched himself in a documentary made at the time, Underground. “I thought the politics…held up remarkably well,” he writes. “I was embarrassed by the arrogance, the solipsism, the absolute certainty that we and we alone knew the way. The rigidity and the narcissism.” What Ayers is describing has a lot to do with why the Weathermen were widely thought, even on the left, to be nuts. Egoism blinded them to the fact that the masses they hoped to sway–and I include myself in these masses–they repelled.

And for that, Ayers tells me, he is sorry. “I gave up something precious–my own individual mind and heart. The distinction I’m making is that I don’t think we should apologize for our extremism. I should apologize for a lot of other things.”

He asks me to remember. “There are two things you can say about the late 60s. We were confronted with a hellish reality–two hellish realities. One was the murder of black revolutionaries. COINTELPRO was not something imagined. The targeting of black messiahs [such as Chicago’s Black Panther leader Fred Hampton] was happening in our faces. It’s very hard to understand what we did without the context of that murderous assault going on in front of us. And secondly, the Vietnam War. The largest antiwar movement of the century, internationally, was underway, and yet we couldn’t stop the war.

“Different people made different choices. Some went into factories to organize the industrial working class. Some people retreated to communes. Some people joined the Democratic Party to reform it. And we organized a military assault on the war. I’m not arguing in the book we were right. I’m trying to explain what we were thinking. I’m not sure we were right.”

When an era is over, the first thing that goes is its logic. Twenty years have passed since Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn turned themselves in, and in that time he has distinguished himself as an educational theorist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His memoir isn’t polemical, nor is it elegiac or meditative. He simply thrusts us back into the 60s. He restores his piece of its logic.

The book is organized around the calamity that probably saved his life. In March of 1970 a huge nail bomb exploded in a town house in Greenwich Village. Annihilated by the blast were three members of the Weather Underground, one of them the bomb’s designer and another Diana Oughton, a Quaker who a few years earlier had been teaching Mayan children in Guatemala. By the government’s lights, only criminals died.

There were a lot of other bombs. Ayers describes a Weather operation that planted a small bomb in a toilet drain in the Pentagon. “We blew up a bathroom and, quite by accident, water plunged below and knocked out their computers for a time, disrupting the air war and sending me into deepening shades of delight.” But the bomb that went off in Greenwich Village was designed to kill, and if it had gone off as intended, on an army base, and done the damage it was designed to do, the Weather people would have been murderers. Murder was the abyss into which they luckily did not fall. And Ayers, with absolutely no way of knowing, imagines Oughton–his lover at the time–understanding the danger and destroying herself to save the others. “The fact the bomb went off and killed only our own people saved us from something terrible and the world from something terrible,” he says. “That’s why I have been haunted by that moment.”

In 1975 the war ended and America lost it. Ayers says he wanted to surrender immediately but his wife had settled into a life of work and children that she wasn’t ready to give up. (Apparently life underground is a lot like life in a parallel universe.) Six more years went by, and in 1981 they returned to a society willing to let bygones be bygones. Ayers concedes that he probably benefited from an amnesia he abhores: the country’s eagerness to consign the war to oblivion, learning no more lessons from it than it absolutely had to. But Ayers isn’t one to savor ironies. “The fact that Americans want to reinvent ourselves every minute as innocent probably did allow us to slip back in at a certain point,” he considers. “But we were children of the middle class [Ayers’s father used to run Commonwealth Edison]. We can’t welcome back Fred Hampton. We can’t make that right.”

Journalists won two Pulitzers writing about the Weathermen: Tom Fitzpatrick of the Sun-Times for writing about 1969’s “days of rage,” a nihilistic rampage from Lincoln Park into the Loop that Ayres vividly describes from the inside; and two UPI reporters for “Diana Oughton: The Making of a Terrorist,” a series that infuriated Ayers when he read it. To him, Oughton was the antithesis of a terrorist.

The year Fitzpatrick won his Pulitzer, Seymour Hersh won another for revealing 1968’s My Lai massacre, in which American troops led by Lieutenant William Calley gunned down more than 300 unarmed, unresisting villagers, among them women and children. No one was punished, though in 1998 three helicopter crewmen who’d intervened to halt the slaughter by facing down Calley’s soldiers at gunpoint were honored in Washington. “It took more than 25 years to imagine their actions as heroic, to remember something moral in doing the unthinkable right thing in war, even when it seemed like the wrong thing,” Ayers muses in print. “How much longer for Diana? When will she be remembered?”

He tells me, “What I’ve tried to do is situate what we did in a larger context. One of the oddest things that’s happened was the Bob Kerrey revelations. It’s amazing that the Kerrey thing surfaced and disappeared. I know him personally, and he’s a nice guy and a decent guy, but he committed this act. They killed civilians and committed gross human-rights violations, and they not only didn’t pay for it but got medals for it.”

So he wants to know, “How do you measure on the scale of things what America did in Vietnam and what we tried to do to stop the war in Vietnam? Were we supposed to say, ‘We oppose the war, but only politely’?”

World War II gave America a fresh generation of leaders, and now so has Vietnam. They’re men like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who neither fought in the war nor against it, but rather kept their heads low and let history go by. They passed their personal test, which was to come through those times unscathed and unruffled. Inevitably, Ayers’s book cites what Thoreau said in contrast: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” It’s a moral trek from a prison cell to the guerrilla cell Ayers wound up in. But there was no moral seriousness at all in staying in bed.

New Prison Crisis: Undercrowding

“A troubling portent,” said A.E. Eyre.

My friend’s edition of the New York Times was open to the headline, “A Growth Industry Cools as New York Prisons Thin.”

Eyre passed me the paper, which reported “fear, anger and suspicion” among prison employees as a shortfall of inmates threatened their livelihoods. “You always figure you’re going to have criminals,” offered a local official in Cape Vincent, a town of 2,400 where a $90 million prison had been built and now panic reigns. A national crisis was hinted at.

If it happens in New York it can happen here, I agreed.

“The two sturdy pillars of the Illinois economy are the lottery and the Department of Corrections,” Eyre brooded. “Many a proud rural community was brought back from the brink by a complement of Chicago thugs.”

We decriminalize drug possession at our peril, I said.

“The problem,” Eyre considered, “must be that too many ex-cons are going straight. I’m sure New York penal officials are trying every bit as hard as their Illinois counterparts to encourage recidivism, but there are only so many ways to permanently brutalize a hooligan. Once you’ve eliminated all the educational and social programs and put the prisoners on permanent lockdown, you’ve pretty much run out of options.”

This empty-cell crisis certainly clarifies the death-penalty debate, I offered.

“Illinois can’t afford to lose a single inmate,” Eyre concurred. “During the boom years Americans blindly assumed we’d never run out of crooks. But nothing lasts forever. Now the boondocks have no other option. Either they stand idly by as their industrial base collapses, or they do what it takes to protect it.”

Which is?

“They have to advertise,” said Eyre.

For what?

“For new convicts, of course. Why should anyone rob a bank unless he gets to choose where he does time once he’s robbed it? We’ve got to give people more of an incentive to turn to crime. That’s how the army recruits.”

I imagined a line of burly lifers spinning to face the camera and bursting into song.

We were weaklings when we got here,

But now we’re buff and now we’re hard.

You’re gonna like it in our yard.

A kind of Village People effect, I told Eyre.

But he preferred a white-collar approach. “That’s where the growth opportunities are,” he explained. “I see an ordinary man carrying his tray across the chow hall and there’s a certain bounce to his step, a certain je ne sais quoi. And the other guys are waving and saying, ‘Hey, Doc,’ and ‘How’s it hangin’, Doc?’ Even a screw gives him a nod, and you can feel the respect everyone holds him in. And the voice-over’s saying, ‘He sat in a cubicle doing meaningless work and nobody knew his name. So he embezzled. Now he writes habeas corpus briefs for falsely convicted lifers. In our joint, he’s the man.'”

Thank God for those lifers, I said.

“Life without hope of parole is an essential tool of fiscal policy,” said Eyre.

News Bites

Early this year the Tribune dropped its afternoon edition while the Sun-Times spiffed up its own. The Sun-Times calculated that it could expand its modest suburban readership by packaging the morning paper in a handsome wrap of late-breaking news stories and market returns aimed at commuters.

On August 6 the Sun-Times upped the ante. Now it’s producing two afternoon editions: “Late Markets,” which hits the streets about 2:30, and “Final Markets,” which replaces it at 4 PM. The Sun-Times has decided that enough people head home early to go after them too.

What’s remarkable is how greatly the second afternoon edition can differ from the first. Last Friday, for example, the front page of the 12-page Late Markets section was completely redone for Final Markets, with “Firestone settles suit for $7.5 mil” giving way as the lead story to “How did Connie do?” The Final Markets back page was devoted to the funeral of slain police officer Eric Lee, another story Late Markets hadn’t even mentioned.

When the Sun-Times means business it says something straight, and just to be sure, says it subliminally. From the August 24 edition, as it appeared in the paper:

“Condit, a California Democrat, showed that he was a weasel.”

Former Tribune sports columnist Skip Bayless is headed west. In September he starts writing a sports column for the San Jose Mercury News, and he’ll also have an afternoon show on all-sports KNBR radio in San Francisco.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.