Thursday, December 3, 2009
The blog entry I hesitated to post
I hesitated to post this entry, because it’s about a controversial person and a controversial book. I worried that if I wrote what I felt, some people would think that I supported terrorism. The attitude of Elizabeth Taylor (see last post) is poking me in the back of my head, telling me to damn the torpedoes of criticism. So, here goes.
Earlier this year, I read the book Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers. (Interestingly enough, I bought it on September 11 at Small World Books in Venice, CA. Every time I go into Small World, I buy something. You should, too – it’s one of the best independent bookstores in Los Angeles County. And it’s near the beach!)
It’s the story about how a typical middle-class kid from Illinois became liberalized, and then radicalized, simply by paying attention to the world around him. In the 1960s and 1970s, Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, who reacted to the atrocity of the Vietnam War by attempting to “bring the war home” – giving America a taste of the agony it was inflicting on the Vietnamese. The WU claimed credit for about 25 bombings overall in the U.S., including one at the Pentagon in 1970 – though the only people ever killed with WU bombs were three members of the WU itself, while they were handling explosives at a Greenwich Village brownstone. Bill Ayers and his fellow WU members spent most of the 1970s as fugitives, but when he turned himself in, the charges against him didn’t stand because of illegal surveillance on the part of the FBI.
Fugitive Days forced me to ask myself questions – how far am I willing to go to fight injustice? What is the proper response when your government is the criminal? Does answering violence with violence work in the long run?
It’s hard not to cheer a group of ordinary people wanting an end to war, racism, sexism, and other steamrollers that crush the human spirit. It’s hard not to cheer when this group strikes back against a monolithic, heartless war machine.
On the other hand…
The WU and other radical groups could be just as dogmatic, rigid, and tunnel-visioned as their enemies – a fact that Ayers makes painfully clear.
And then, there’s the bombs.
What, empirically speaking, is the difference between the Weathermen who plant bombs in the Pentagon and the anti-abortion activists who plant bombs in Planned Parenthood offices? Had the WU had made good on its threat to “bring the war home,” people who didn’t cause, affect, or even approve of the Vietnamese conflict would have died.
Uncritical approval carries with it moral risk. Bombs, no matter who throws or plants them, tear people apart – figuratively as well as literally.
Bill Ayers and the other WU members who stayed on the right side of the law since 1980 have enjoyed peaceful and productive lives since then. I have no problem with that. When certain members of the right wing tried to smear then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama because Ayers hosted a campaign event for Obama back in 1995, I rolled my eyes. (Most other voters did, too.)
Fugitive Days is a harrowing story of people who tested the limits of their values. I recommend it no matter your place in the political spectrum. If it makes you think that planting bombs is a great idea, you didn't read it close enough.