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Looking for Mr. Goodbomb | The Nation

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Looking for Mr. Goodbomb

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Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanted animal. He does not have the final and firm conviction that his conduct is correct. But neither, it should be understood, is he certain of the opposite.

         (Meditations on Hunting
         José Ortega y Gasset)

My bloodthirsty stage, the warrior phase of a developing manhood, lasted from age 6 until age 12. At 6, I was the first little boy on my block, in Washington, DC, to have a Lone Ranger atomic bomb ring. You peeked in at a color photograph of the mushroom cloud. In fact, owing to a mixup of breakfast cereal boxtops in Battle Creek, Michigan, I had four Lone Ranger atomic bomb rings, one for every other finger on both hands. I only wish I could have quoted Sanskrit.

At age 12, in 1952, I found myself wearing a WIN WITH KEFAUVER T-shirt in Joe McCarthy territory, at a hunting and fishing lodge in northern Wisconsin, when one of the black Labrador retrievers came back with a nose full of porcupine quills. Grim men in checkerboard motley took up arms in the forest primeval. I found the fierce porcupine, hiding up a tree. I shot it twice with a .22 rifle. It fell at my feet, not exactly a sweet kill. I can't remember if we ate it. But no bird sang, and neither did a Hemingway.

Robin Williams has since explained: "Kill a small animal, drink a lite beer." My son, who was born so fortuitously in 1962, describes himself today as the first Berkeley antiwar protest, or a draft dodge. I tell you this so that you will know just who's thinking out loud about Weatherman, the Days of Rage and the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. In my opinion, they were all a bunch of Lone Ranger atomic bomb rings.

Bill Ayers takes a different view. He was himself a street-fighting Weatherperson, a rock-and-roll Tupamaro, a social bandit out of Hobsbawm, like Rob Roy, Pancho Villa, Jesse James and the Opportune Rain Sung Chiang. He was in love with another Weatherperson, Diana Oughton, a former Peace Corps Quaker, who died making bombs on West 11th Street. He then married a third Weatherperson, Bernardine Dohrn, a University of Chicago law school graduate feared by J. Edgar Hoover ("the most dangerous woman in America") and American Rhapsodized by Joe Eszterhas ("our real babe in bandoliers"). And he's foster father to the child of a fourth, Kathy Boudin, who remains in prison for the 1981 stickup of a Brink's truck that killed four people. How he got to American Berserk, carrying a poem by Ho Chi Minh in his pocket, tattooed on his neck with the rainbow-and-lightning logo and playing with the sticks of dynamite they nicknamed "pickles," is the subject of this unrepentant retrospection.

Up to a point, Fugitive Days is the frazzled story of almost any white middle-class 1960s activist in the civil rights and antiwar movements, written with a speed-freak rush between embarrassing apostrophes to Mnemosyne--memory "is a delicate dance of desire and faith, a shadow of a shadow, an echo of a sigh" when it isn't a twig "tossed like a toy from crest to trough" on a murky "wine-dark, opaque, unfathomable" sea, or the "ghosts and fears that haunt us, floating desires and falsifying dreams more powerful and more compelling than hard reality will ever be," or "a mortuary," or a "mystification," or maybe even "a motherfucker"--but at least true to the kids we were. At that OK Corral point, however, when a movement devolved into a vanguard,when participatory democracy turned into a tantrum of the Leninist cadres, when Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry started looking like Don DeLillo's alphabet killer cult, Bill Ayers blinks.

Such swaddled beginnings: The middle child of well-heeled Midwesterners--his "rising executive" father became CEO of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago--young Bill grew up in comfortably suburban Glen Ellyn, Illinois, playing football almost as soon as he could walk, catching crayfish and sticking frogs in the Du Page River, summering at YMCA camp or on Cape Cod, reading books like The Runaway Bunny and Catcher in the Rye, going to movies like Flying Leathernecks, prepping at Lake Forest Academy and, upon discovering in Ann Arbor that he was too small to cut the mustard on Michigan's Big 10 football team, dropping out to play instead for social justice.

Well, not immediately. He auditioned in Detroit for the Rev. Gabriel Star, who sent him to New Orleans, where Father Peter Paul Streeter couldn't figure out what to do with him, so he signed up as a merchant seaman on a freighter to Piraeus full of "Food for Peace." Rome was where he first read about Vietnam, in the International Herald-Tribune. Back then to Ann Arbor and Students for a Democratic Society, being radicalized by his first bonfire, teach-in, sit-in and jail time: "anarchists and street people, radicals and rockers." Not to mention Diggers, Wobblies, dope, hair and his first tattoo, a red star on the left shoulder. Like his heroes Bob Moses and Martin Luther King Jr., he would be "a nonviolent direct action warrior, in the spirit of the civil rights struggle. I was about to personally disrupt this war, and I tingled all over."

What this meant, at age 20 in 1965, was teaching young children in a freedom school and learning from a local leader of Women's Strike for Peace "the fine points of female orgasm." By age 21, he was director of the Ann Arbor school and setting up a similar one in Cleveland--food and lodging paid for by church groups and labor unions, $2 a week in spending money and an expanding agenda that included a rent strike committee and a healthcare project--when he met his first urban riot: "The strange thing was to live in an atmosphere simultaneously terrifying and deeply energizing." Alas, when Stokely Carmichael and Black Power came along, "I [had to] get out of the way"--which meant leaving both Cleveland and Jackie, the young black woman with whom he slept. (Among other things, Fugitive Days is an anthology of ass. This aspect of Ayers got a turgid airing in a Weather Underground communiqué from Jane Alpert in 1974; you can look it up online in the Duke University archives.) But he had seen enough:

Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down.

So it was back to Ann Arbor, where he met Diana, just returned, herself, from Guatemala. Not only could she worm dogs, can fruit and drive a motorcycle, but she was as blond as Bill. About Bill, Diana wrote to her sister: "I'm afraid he's going to be a boy forever--he's got a Peter Pan complex, and no Wendy Girl in sight."Together, they "wanted to teach the children, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, fight the power, and end the war." And yet, as the war worsened, so did their behavior. If Diana began to identify with Simone Weil, longing to parachute behind enemy lines, even cutting her long hair, Bill seemed to channel the BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY Malcolm X poster on the wall in their kitchen. In Washington for the 1967 demonstration, he told TV reporter Peter Jennings, who had paid for the steak he ate: "I'm not so much against the war as I am for a Vietnamese victory. I'm not so much for peace as for a US defeat." Even before the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, the Mexico City Olympics or the Chicago Democratic Convention, "everything seemed urgent now, everything was accelerating.... It fell to us--and we were just kids--to save the world."

You already know more than you want to about Chicago 1968. But Ayers makes clear the determination of student radicals, wearing red headbands, toting backpacks with Vaseline and goggles to protect themselves against tear gas, hammers to smash windows, slingshots, blackjacks, cherry bombs and marbles (for scattering any cavalry charge), to bring down capitalism, racism and imperialism by kicking butt. After which "smoke and rage," there was "fear, then naked panic," and, finally, "sheer joy and wild relief to be there cherishing every lovely blow." For those in need of an epiphany:

The serpent of rage was loosed in the wide world, and it sank its passionate fangs deep into our inflamed hearts, power and corruption lying in the tall grass side by side along the pathway of wrath.
      Uncontrollable rage--fierce frenzy of fire and lava, blowing off the mountaintop, coursing headlong, in an onslaught of unstoppable chaos--choking rivers, overwhelming the living things in its disastrous path, consuming to exhaustion.
      Purifying fury, white-hot and cutting laserlike through illusion, burning a fine, straight tunnel to the very soul of things. Illuminating anger, passionate and perceptive, eliminating all distraction and doubt, our bright shining pinpoint of lucid, absolute certainty at last.

This doesn't sound to me much like Bob Moses, Grace Paley, Allen Ginsberg or Joan Baez. It sounds more like Big 10 football.

The sky was blue and the whips were black. (Isaac Babel)

Nor, trust me, do you really want to hear about the takeover of SDS by its Maoist faction, Progressive Labor, which scowled upon the "revisionism" of the North Vietnamese. It wasn't necessary to be a member of any wing of the Revolutionary Youth Movement, all of them waving their Little Red Books, to want to secede in 1969 from a lunatic state of mind. But Ayers and his buddies took up citizenship in a system almost equally delusional--with its rhetoric of "wargasms" and "an American Red Army," its ideology of pothead group sex and rubbishy machismo, and its dorky four-fingered fork salute. They brought the war home by invading high schools, trashing supermarkets, going to kung fu movies, hassling autoworkers on a beach, passing out leaflets at a Hell's Angels rally, burning an effigy of Henry Ford III at a Davis Cup tennis match, springing Timothy Leary from prison, accusing one another of reading poems or eating ice cream, blowing up statues and each other.

Diana had to be identified from the print on a severed fingertip.

This isn't hindsight. Even at the time, and much quoted since, the Wisconsin SDS observed, "You don't need a rectal thermometer to know who the assholes are." Ayers quotes a friend fed up "with what he saw as our increasingly self-righteous pose within the movement, and especially with our newfound appetite for sharpening the political line. Fuck your political line, he'd say, laughing. A fishing line might feed someone, a line of poetry might fire an imagination here and there, but a political line?" Don't tell me, as Ayers does, that you had to be there to feel Weather's rage. We were there, and most of us thought they were bonkers. Renegade splinters of the fractured New Left, imagining themselves to be samurai or Sioux, Boxers or Bolsheviks, turned violent at the end of the 1960s,and the media adored them for it. It meant that everybody underneath, in the rice paddies or on the streets, was the same sort of Crazy Horse, sun-dancing himself to death after a dusting of wild aster seeds and a chaw of dried eagle brain. Ever since, the 1960s have been written off as nutcase excess.

Ayers might have told us why, looking back, he now thinks so many smart kids shape-shifted their shamanic selves from Dr. King to Dr. Strangelove or Baader-Meinhofs and the Red Brigades. There is even reason to suspect that he knows things about himself he would prefer to blame on Harry Truman and Hiroshima than to analyze out loud. For instance, even before he read Dickens, Twain and Hemingway, Ellison and Kerouac, Rousseau, Thoreau and Marx, even before his favorite films turned out to be The Battle of Algiers and Bonnie and Clyde, he seems to have had a crush on boom-boom. The Fourth of July was his favorite holiday because of cherry bombs--"and the rocket's red glare." At age 14, hanging with the neighborhood pool sharps and bumper tags, he proved himself an honorary "Italian" by keeping silent after he was accidentally set on fire by an exploding zipgun/pipe bomb, whose ingenious construction from match heads, firecracker fuses, threaded bolts, cotton wadding and ball bearings he lovingly describes. To pass the time at Lake Forest Academy, overprivileged preppies "trapped small animals in the woods and blew them up with candle bombs late at night." As early as page 21 of Fugitive Days, young Bill has already asked a poignant question:

Could there ever be a really good bomb? It could not be built to hurt or kill. Maybe it could extract minerals from the ground. Maybe it could knock over an abandoned building, or maybe the Pentagon after everyone goes home. Simple earth-works, performance art, everyone standing back. Bombs away.

But Looking for Mr. Goodbomb will not entirely explain his memoir's prurient interest in pressure-trigger, alarm clock, magnifying glass and nipple time bombs, in Bangalore torpedoes and homemade grenades, in nitroglycerin, ammonium nitrate, mercury fulminate, chloride of azode and dynamite, not to mention hat pins, brass knuckles, garrotes and saps, or, even after the death of Diana, his training in the desert with high-powered rifles and 9-millimeter pistols. The once-upon-a-time "nonviolent direct action warrior" has become his very own free-fire zone.

Now listen to his Days of Rage paean to army surplus helmets, gas masks, heavy boots, steel pipes, war whoops, piercing whistles and "rolls of pennies to add weight to a punch"; the hot blood, the ice-cold forehead and the sparks leaping from his skin: "I'm not kidding--I looked at the backs of my hands then and little blue and white electric currents danced wildly across them." Breaking the windows of hotels and cars, "we shrieked and screamed as we ran, ululating in imitation of the fighters of the Battle of Algiers. I saw us become what I thought was a real battalion in a guerrilla army, and it felt for that moment like more than theater, more than metaphor. I felt the warrior rising up inside me--audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity." And: "My feet were a spinning blur, and I hardly touched the ground. I saw fire in the firmament, and vengeance in the faces of my pursuers." And: "I was scared but still exhilarated, swept along in the darkness, hunched over, gliding with a cosmic energy coursing through me, something large and mysterious powering my fateful rush." Until, finally, a Chicago graveyard, "a fugitive city" of wrecked and abandoned cars and buses:

This bizarre and violent time, this ritual of combat, this surreal setting combined with ferocious demons vomited into the dark-eyed night, pursuing me now with anonymous, deadly hatred. I was sure of only one thing: whatever happened next, I was choosing with eyes wide open, and while I might be wrong or foolish, limited and inadequate, mine would not be the suffering of the hapless victim. I might get crushed, but I would never complain and I would never bring suit. Life's tough. Get a helmet.

This is the cuckoo sprung from the clock of a Sumerian warrior-king, a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid psychology of masculine triumphalism. So it's no surprise, just lousy timing, that on the very morning of the terror bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bill Ayers should be quoted, in a smirking interview in the New York Times, as saying of his Weatherman days: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." Maybe he's joshing again, as he assures the Times he must have been if he actually said in 1970, "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home,kill your parents, that's where it's really at" (intended, he now says, as "a joke about the distribution of wealth"). His wife, Bernardine Dohrn, must likewise have been joking when she said in 1969, after the Manson gang murders: "Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim's stomach. Wild!" (Dohrn hastens to tell the Times that "we were mocking violence in America. Even in my most inflamed moment I never supported a racist mass murderer.") And Jerry Rubin told me in 1977 that he'd only been joking in 1968, after Robert Kennedy's assassination, when he declared that "Sirhan Sirhan is a Yippie!"


We Fascisti are violent when it is necessary to be so, but this necessary violence of ours must have a character and style of its own; it must be aristocratic; it must be surgical.

         (Benito Mussolini, April 3, 1921)

After the Village townhouse explosion, when all the Weather balloons went underground, they resolved to be more careful: "No one at that safe house in those white hot days wanted to surrender, and no one argued for surfacing or disbanding. No one even thought that we should turn away from violence on principle. There was, however, a consensus growing that our actions would be strongest as symbols...a kind of overheated storytelling." So, while the last half of Fugitive Days is devoted mostly to the tradecraft of hiding out from the FBI--the "doubleness" of collecting dead-baby birth certificates and switching identities, the code names from rock songs and rules against food stamps, the odd jobs building swimming pools and slaughtering chickens, writing Prairie Fire, reading Amilcar Cabral, being filmed by Emile de Antonio, the Che posters, the chopsticks and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap--mention is also made in passing of the occasional bombings of ROTC buildings, Selective Service offices and the "corporate giants most clearly identified with U.S. aggression and expansion," like Standard Oil, United Fruit, Chase Manhattan and IBM.

Each, Ayers tells us, was "hugely magnified because of the symbolic nature of the target, the deliberate and judicious nature of the blow, and the synchronized public announcements suggesting the dreadful or exhilarating news that a homegrown guerrilla movement was afoot in America." He insists that "I thought about the justification for each action.... [We] did our best to take care, to focus, to do no harm to persons and no more damage than we'd planned." I'm sure that all the other kamikazes of Kingdom Come say pretty much the same thing just before they bomb another abortion clinic. Later, speaking of the Pentagon, Ayers tells us: "Because nothing justified their actions in our calculus, nothing could contradict the merit of ours." We've heard this before, too, from everybody in Belfast, Sarajevo and Beirut who ever killed a child because his Higher Power told him to.

Somehow, it all just happens: Bill dreams of falling overboard while crossing the Atlantic, the ship steaming off without him and his feelings "of total abandonment, of utter loneliness," as the waters close overhead. He is overcome by a sensation that "the train was racing headlong downhill without regard to flashing lights or warning bells as the locomotive of my heart switched tracks. I didn't know where I would stop, or where I might be stopped, but there was already blood on the tracks and you could see it." He feels himself "drawn to the escalating fight, to the need to hurl myself into war in solidarity and in sacrifice" but also "evicted...we could never go home." Finally: "Circuit complete, compass in motion, disruption under way. Upside down. And so it ends, and so it begins, and we were, all of us, short-circuited, going under." Notice how passive this is, so innocent of will or choice, all momentum or inertia, all drag, all fall, never my fault.

In his terribly moving last pages, Ayers imagines that Diana in the townhouse had a change of heart and was moving to disconnect the bomb when it exploded. Of course, he thinks this wishfully, but one likes him for it, as one likes him for returning, after the underground years, to the teaching of children, with which he began. I was going to argue that it's too late, after so many pages of slimy apologetics. And then I would razzle-dazzle the somnolent with the quaint warrior ways of the Dani, the Yanomamo and the Jivaro headhunters of Ecuador; the blood sacrifice of the Scythians, the ritual pederasty of Sparta and Crete, and the agaric mushrooms and fermented honey of the carnivorous Celts; Boudicca, Scathach and Chang San-feng, who left no snowy footprints; bombs in Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover; and, of course, Gilgamesh waiting around till the worm fell out of the nose of his dead buddy Enkidu. But then bombs really did come down, and I no longer have the heart.

Let's leave it simple. Let's valorize, instead of Weatherman, those who strung along with Gandhi on his Salt March to decolonize the Indian mind in 1930. And the Dutch doctors who refused, during the Nazi occupation, to screen for genetic "defects." And the Danes who declined to build German ships, feed the German Army or honor the Nazi racial laws, while whisking away their Jewish fellow citizens to Sweden. And the Fisk students who desegregated Nashville's downtown lunch counters in 1960 and thereby launched a second American revolution. And the Polish workers in Solidarity who occupied a shipyard in 1980and, by insisting on their right to strike, began, without firing a single shot, the dismantling of the nonprofit police states of Eastern Europe. And those disenfranchised citizens of martial-law South Africa whose economic boycott spread from the black townships to the conscience-stricken West, paralyzed the apartheid state and led eventually to free elections. And those Chileans who ended Pinochet's dictatorship with street festivals, protest songs, union activity, vigils by the mothers of the disappeared and a surprise plebiscite. Not to forget the women of Manila who shamed the tanks of Marcos with a fusillade of yellow flowers, the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square or what Daw Aung San Suu Kyiis apparently accomplishing under Rangoon house arrest.

Everywhere it is written--in bullet holes and amputations, in shell shock and mushroom clouds, in brainwash and shrink-wrap--that political science is a clenched fist, that power flows from the mouths of guns, that bloodlust and servitude are coded in our genome and that obedience or death is the inevitable trajectory of narrative. But there is another way to read this atrocious past century: the view from Gandhi's spinning wheel, in which, against tyranny, exploitation, occupation and oppression, popular movements of tens of thousands withhold their consent. They refuse, secede, mobilize, challenge, humiliate, disrupt and disobey. And their principled civil disobedience--tactical, strategic, improvisatory, sometimes even whimsical--creates the very wherewithal of a civil society. When Vaclav Havel and his friends wrote a new social contract in 1989 in the Magic Lantern Theater in Prague, on a stage set for Dürrenmatt's Minotaurus, they weren't reading Prairie Fire. Nor were the students from Charles University, dressed comically as Young Pioneers in red kerchiefs, white blouses and pigtails, calling themselves the Committee for a More Joyful Present, who joined these jailbird intellectuals when they were weary and depressed: "We have come," the students said, "to cheer you up--and make sure you don't turn into another politburo." And the students gave to all the members of Havel's plenum little circular mirrors to examine themselves as they wrote the future of the Czech Republic to the music of the Beatles--in order to be on the lookout for you know whom.

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