Bill Ayers, meet Eric Rudolph
They disappeared in 1970, after a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, and turned themselves into authorities in 1980. They were never prosecuted for their involvement with the 25 bombings the Weather Underground claimed; charges were dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.
Ayers and Dohrn are far from contrite about their violent past. “I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough,” Ayers told the New York Times in 2001.
Even so, they've done rather well for themselves. Despite a violent past, Ayers has settled in comfortably as an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Dohrn is an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.
And, of course, the two are respected political activists in Chicago's Hyde Park, where they hosted Barack Obama in their home and where Ayers worked alongside Obama on the board of a foundation.
I'm less concerned about Obama's association with Ayers and Dohrn than some political chatterers seem to be. I've never doubted that Obama shared some of the leftist views of people more radical than he (a touch pink? You don't say!) And I don't really fear that he's a closet bomb-thrower; there's simply no evidence that Barack Obama wants to implement his political views by force -- at least, not by force beyond that permitted by the "legitimate" political system.
But I am intrigued by the rather friendly treatment that Ayers and Dohrn receive in contrast to terrorists who adhere to different flavors of violent authoritarianism.
And I do mean authoritarianism. While press coverage tends to emphasize Ayers' and Dohrn's anti-war activism (and to refer to the bombers as "radicals" rather than "terrorists"), their ideology encompasses rather more than skepticism about the long-gone bloodbath in Vietnam. They're hostile to the market system, fond of socialism and openly solicitous of repressive political leaders who share their goals. On his blog (they're very modern radicals), Ayers writes of Hugo Chavez's Venezuela:
Despite being under constant attack from within and from abroad, the Bolivarian revolution has made astonishing strides in a brief period: from the Mission Simoncito to the Mission Robinson to the Mission Ribas to the Mission Sucre, to the Bolivarian schools and the UBV, Venezuelans have shown the world that with full participation, full inclusion, and popular empowerment, the failings of capitalist schooling can be resisted and overcome. Venezuela is a beacon to the world in its accomplishment of eliminating illiteracy in record time, and engaging virtually the entire population in the ongoing project of education.
Chavez has engaged "virtually the entire population" by requiring even private schools to adopt his regime's politicized curriculum, under threat of nationalization.
That's the sort of political ideology that "radical" professors Ayers and Dohrn find attractive, and which drove their (still fondly remembered) bombing campaign.
Compare the treatment of this pair to, say Eric Rudolph. Rudolph is another political terrorist who also spent years as a fugitive, apparently assisted, like Ayers and Dohrn, by sympathizers. Driven by hatred of gays and lesbians and opposition to abortion, Rudolph planted bombs that killed two people and injured over 100. In his 2005 statement, Rudolph said:
Abortion is murder. And when the regime in Washington legalized, sanctioned and legitimized this practice, they forfeited their legitimacy and moral authority to govern. ...
There is no more legitimate reason to my knowledge, for renouncing allegiance to and if necessary using force to drag this monstrosity of a government down to the dust where it belongs. ...
Along with abortion, another assault upon the integrity of American society is the concerted effort to legitimize the practice of homosexuality. ...
[W]hen the attempt is made to drag this practice out of the closet and into the public square in an "in your face" attempt to force society to accept and recognize this behavior as being just as legitimate and normal as the natural man/woman relationship, every effort should be made, including force if necessary, to halt this effort.
Like the former Weathermen, Rudolph remains unrepentant. Referring to his bombing of an abortion clinic, he wrote, "I have no regrets or remorse for my actions that day in January, and consider what happened morally justified."
Unlike Ayers and Dohrn, however, Rudolph is serving hard time in prison -- multiple consecutive life terms without parole. Ayers never served time and Dohrn spent less than a year in prison for refusing to testify about a Weather Underground heist in which a guard and two police officers were killed. And there's never been any question about Rudolph's status: press accounts regularly (and accurately, I would say) refer to him as a "terrorist," denying him the nudge-and-wink "radical" status afforded to the lefty bombers.
While it's unlikely that we'll ever get the chance to see whether any American universities are eager to award Rudolph with a tenured teaching job, it's safe to say that the authoritarian right-wing bomber is treated rather more roughly by the press and the intellectual establishment than are the authoritarian left-wing bombers. Ayers and Dohrn are widely presented as otherwise-respectable activists who went a tad too far, while Rudolph is generally described as the unpleasant product of hate, intolerance and the dark underbelly of rural American society. The association of a presidential hopeful with Ayers and Dohrn may excite scattered raised eyebrows -- and talk that the issue is an overblown bit of "Obama backlash"-- among the all-of 26 news stories on the matter that a Google search turns up as of February 24. But it's hard to believe that McCain's campaign would enjoy the same nonchalant treatment if it turned out that he'd broken bread with Rudolph at a pro-life fundraiser.
The difference is likely one of culture and familiarity. Journalists, academics and intellectuals run into even the most radical leftists often enough that the likes of Ayers and Dohrn might seem excessive without coming across as unsympathetic. That sort of familiarity can result in the occasional howler, such as the misty-eyed 1990 New York Times story on a failing retirement home populated by "political idealists" -- aging communists with a lingering nostalgia for Lenin. It's hard to believe the Grey Lady would have run a similar piece about octogenarian German-American bundists pining for Adolph. But I'm certain that aging reds strike many journalists as quaint, while old brownshirts just come across as pathetic -- despite the comparable body counts of the two totalitarian ideologies.
So the minor kerfuffle over Obama's association with Ayers and Dohrn says less about the candidate -- who did nothing most of his peers would find unacceptable -- than it does about the thinking of a certain part of the American political and intellectual establishment. Violence to achieve political change may be a no-no, but it's a minor transgression in the service of a sympathetic kind of politics, and a reprehensible crime when implemented for the wrong ideas.
And the fact that the sympathetic kind of politics is as repressive as the wrong kind? Well, that says something too.