Clarifying the Facts— a letter to the New York Times, 9-15-2001

September 15, 2001

To The Editors—

In July of this year Dinitia Smith asked my publisher if she might interview me for the New York Times on my forthcoming book, Fugitive Days. From the start she questioned me sharply about bombings, and each time I referred her to my memoir where I discussed the culture of violence we all live with in America, my growing anger in the 1960’s about the structures of racism and the escalating war, and the complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices I made in those terrible times.

Smith’s angle is captured in the Times headline: “No regrets for a love of explosives” (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one’s life. I never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we didn’t do enough to stop the war.

Smith writes of me: “Even today, he ‘finds a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,’ he writes.” This fragment seems to support her “love affair with bombs” thesis, but it is the opposite of what I wrote:

We’ll bomb them into the Stone Age, an unhinged American politician had intoned, echoing a gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip general… each describing an American policy rarely spoken so plainly. Boom. Boom. Boom. Poor Viet Nam. Almost four times the destructive power Florida… How could we understand it? How could we take it in? Most important, what should we do about it? Bombs away. There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground. Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm. Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a body and a spirit, someone who knew him well or cared for her or counted on her for something or was annoyed or burdened or irritated by him; each knew something of joy or sadness or beauty or pain. Each was ripped out of this world, a little red dampness staining the earth, drying up, fading, and gone. Bodies torn apart, blown away, smudged out, lost forever.

I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility, then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in Asia. Clearly I wrote and spoke about the export of violence and the government’s love affair with bombs. Just as clearly Dinitia Smith was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is not a question of being misunderstood or “taken out of context,” but of deliberate distortion.

Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by associating my book with them. This is absurd. 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. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results from it. We are now witnessing crimes against humanity in our own land on an unthinkable scale, and I fear that we might soon see innocent people in other parts of the world as well as in the U.S. dying and suffering in response.

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 lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more urgent now than ever.

Bill Ayers Chicago, IL

63 Responses to Clarifying the Facts— a letter to the New York Times, 9-15-2001

  1. Justin Smiley says:

    I see that the leftist fascists cannot stand a Vietnam Vetran posting on here. Well I still say Mr. Ayers is a physical and moral coward. What he did in the 60’s was not honorable, but cowardly. I have more respect for the draft dodgers that went to jail on principal than a puny minded terrorist that slithered around in the dead of night planting bombs. And now is an honored professor? He should have attended confession when the Pope visited. If Mr. Ayers had his way he would have all of us simple minded people put in concentration camps for re-education. There is no difference between him and the Nazis and Fascists that supposedly had all the answers to societies problems. One day he will face a judge that will do the right thing in judging his life.

  2. tomwfox says:

    Bill Ayers –

    Your book is out of print! Woe is me. I can buy it used easy enough, but that won’t do you any good personally. Or, you put the whole thing online for free and avoid the transportation impact. This is the 21st Century. I understand that if you read the book backwards there are some secret messages.

  3. Sam Pierce says:

    I know this won’t make it out of moderation, but if you happen to see this Mr. Ayers, please note that it is extremely unfortunate that some people never get what they deserve. I only wish you had been with your bumbling buddy when the bomb he intended for who knows how many innocent victims took his own life. One less violent “peace loving” communist in the world, what a shame… the shame being it wasn’t two or more.

  4. Matt says:

    I’m a leftist-radical. I’m not communist. I’m an American and future teacher. I support Bill Ayers. I had an opportunity to meet him in the past through a family member. It was an honor. Many of the ignorant commenters should really dig into his work before judging him. Take a class, or attend one of his lectures, but come prepared. He’s a guy that knows what is going on in this nation and on a global aspect.

    It’s okay though, obviously those against you would rather label you a terrorist than get the actual terrorist who helped plan 911, Mr. President Bush out of office and complain you’re a horrible evil person.

    He’s one guy, he turned his life around, and is now an icon for what he accomplished in the past/present. If you want to hate him go right ahead, but it’s safe to say he made a difference in my life.

  5. PumaJ says:

    Bill, thank you for your post. I have to admit that I wonder why the NY Times didn’t publish your entire letter. I guess they were still into giving only inaccurate info about you.

    I’m old enough to remember the Weathermen and what the “cause” of the group was. Frankly, I didn’t agree with the group’s ideas of bombing anything, though I was very glad that warning was given ahead of time so that no one was hurt. But, accidents happen, as you know all too well, and that was always what I worried about.

    I remember the Vietnam War years. That entire era was one of such socio-political upheaval all over the planet, while at the same time the US and the USSR were engaged in the “Cold War”. Vietnam really was a victim surrogate in the “Cold War” struggle between the US, USSR and China. Such an awful tragedy so many Vietnamese and American lives ended horribly and so many left permanently scarred inside and out.

    That the involvement of the US in Vietnam was and is still such a divisive subject speaks highly to the immensity of that conflict.

    In addition, for those who are younger than we are, there is clearly a lack of clear understanding about the socio-political upheavals of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Those upheavals were so powerful that they still impact us today in that the right so moved to stop the changes that they ultimately were able to get Bush # 2 into the presidency.

    I am hopeful that we can move past all of that and go on into a new era. It certainly seems that you have been able to that in your own life. Kudos to you.

  6. Jack Janski says:

    Hey Timmy,

    You are defending a domestic terrorist asshole in Billy Ayers. Get your head out of your ass.

  7. TONY says:

    A week ago, the mention of William Ayers name would’ve elicited a blank reaction from those on this site who criticize him. Now he’s a domestic terrorist asshole.

    Ollie North was a terrorist collaborator who somehow joined the mainstream but his past is acceptable by some because he was doing it behind our backs from the White House basement.

  8. Nickie Stein says:

    Amazing—maybe not so amazing—how the “Friends of Willy” either make shit up or just plain don’t know shit.

  9. Sam says:

    Stop it, Tony! STOP IT! Stop bringing up true statements.
    Yes, Ayers was a terrorist, but, if I am to believe the US is truly a Christian nation, shouldn’t there be more forgiveness for this guy? Or is this all just an “eye for an eye” thing?

    He served his time and he’s not bombing things anymore. Isn’t that what prison is for? And if you don’t agree with the rulings of the judges who sentenced him, go create your own dictatorship. You’ll probably feel much better putting people to death without a fair trial, and being able to ignore the rulings of an independently created court and impartial jurors.

  10. Shirley says:

    “Unrepentant terrorist” – Now where have I heard that one? Oh yeah – Sean Hannity.
    Some people just can’t hink for themselves.

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