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