The New York Times published an op-ed Saturday from William Ayers decrying how Barack Obama was smeared by conservatives through guilt by association. This is not surprising when a liberal writes it. It is, however, a little hard to take from someone who bombed public buildings without a care about hurting or killing innocent people who aren’t "war criminals." Once you plot to bomb the Pentagon or the Capitol or an officers’ dance, the charisma of that guilt-by-association complaint seems to vanish.
Much of the Saturday article is a rehash of the things Ayers has said in interviews with ABC and NPR and Pacifica Radio. Ayers denies he was a terrorist – thinking the charge is an Orwellian lie – and claims Jeremiah Wright merely had a "fiery style" of preaching, not that he thought America deserved 9/11 or that the U.S. government mixed up the AIDS virus in a lab to kill blacks:
Unable to challenge the content of Barack Obama’s campaign, his opponents invented a narrative about a young politician who emerged from nowhere, a man of charm, intelligence and skill, but with an exotic background and a strange name. The refrain was a question: "What do we really know about this man?"
Secondary characters in the narrative included an African-American preacher with a fiery style, a Palestinian scholar and an "unrepentant domestic terrorist." Linking the candidate with these supposedly shadowy characters, and ferreting out every imagined secret tie and dark affiliation, became big news.
I was cast in the "unrepentant terrorist" role; I felt at times like the enemy projected onto a large screen in the "Two Minutes Hate" scene from George Orwell’s "1984," when the faithful gathered in a frenzy of fear and loathing.
This would only be an Orwellian scene if Ayers never really joined the Weather Underground, and never attempted to bomb government buildings. What’s Orwellian is claiming that you’re not an "enemy" of the people of the United States while you plot to bomb their buildings and kill the people who defend them in the military. (Bombing buildings would seem a better example of a "frenzy of fear and loathing" than denouncing the bombers on a talk-radio show.) It's also a little weird to complain you became a "shadowy character" when you refused to grant interviews.
Then came Ayers’ usual attempt to sound a little bit repentant:
The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be — and still is being — debated. We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war.
Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends.
I cannot imagine engaging in actions of that kind today. And for the past 40 years, I’ve been teaching and writing about the unique value and potential of every human life, and the need to realize that potential through education....
The antiwar movement in all its commitment, all its sacrifice and determination, could not stop the violence unleashed against Vietnam. And therein lies cause for real regret.
We — the broad "we" — wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at induction centers, surrounded the Pentagon and lay down in front of troop trains. Yet we were inadequate to end the killing of three million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans during a 10-year war.
Perhaps the meanest thing you could say to Ayers is that not many people are "still debating" the Weather Underground. Almost everyone has either forgotten them, or for those who born in the 1970s or later, never learned about them. But the strangest part of this passage is Ayers claiming he’s valued every human life for "the past 40 years," which would include his bombing years. He valued human life as he plotted to destroy it. And he thinks it’s "profoundly dishonest" to call him "unrepentant"?
Ayers wrapped it up with the usual claims that he barely knew Obama (as he scolds others for dishonesty), and boasts that Obama's radical willingness to honor Ayers as an educator who valued human life is a sign of Obama's virtue:
The dishonesty of the narrative about Mr. Obama during the campaign went a step further with its assumption that if you can place two people in the same room at the same time, or if you can show that they held a conversation, shared a cup of coffee, took the bus downtown together or had any of a thousand other associations, then you have demonstrated that they share ideas, policies, outlook, influences and, especially, responsibility for each other’s behavior. There is a long and sad history of guilt by association in our political culture, and at crucial times we’ve been unable to rise above it.
President-elect Obama and I sat on a board together; we lived in the same diverse and yet close-knit community; we sometimes passed in the bookstore. We didn’t pal around, and I had nothing to do with his positions. I knew him as well as thousands of others did, and like millions of others, I wish I knew him better.
Demonization, guilt by association, and the politics of fear did not triumph, not this time. Let’s hope they never will again. And let’s hope we might now assert that in our wildly diverse society, talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue.
Let's not forget that the New York Times op-ed editor who would not accept John McCain's op-ed submission (they didn't want anyone going negative on Barack) has accepted one from William Ayers.