Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Definitions of a Terrorist

You heard the words so much they penetrated your dreams, turning them to nightmares, jarring you awake, screaming, trembling, praying that it would all soon be over. “Palling around with terrorists … palling around with terrorists … palling around with terrorists…” Of course, Gov. John McCain’s Biggest Mistake was referring to Barack Obama’s supposedly intimate relationship with former student radical, SDS member, and founder of the Weather Underground, William Ayers.

Though countless news outlets repeatedly reported that there was just no there there, Palin and McCain continued the Ayers attacks, which started (along with most of the GOP’s attacks this fall) with the Clinton campaign. And throughout it all, Bill Ayers remained disquietingly silent. But now, with the campaign over and the republication of his memoir, Fugitive Days, the former radical has finally found his tongue and is wagging it over the airwaves.

I’m sure for Ayers (like so many during that vicious campaign) it was more than a bit disconcerting to be thrown into the middle of Presidential politics. And no one else had to deal with people chanting “Kill him!” when their names were uttered. Aside from wanting to continue their tried, tired, and true culture war against the ‘60s, the GOP just loved linking Obama (who many believe is a closet Muslim and, therefore, a jihadi) with terrorism. Ayers was just a convenient vehicle (as was Rashid Khalidi in the campaign’s final weeks), after all, Bill was a member of a group that had bombed the Pentagon. Though the Weathermen never killed anyone but themselves, the Republicans knew the very word “terrorist” would link them in folks’ minds with al-Qaeda—another “Obama bin Laden” marketing coup.

This attempted conflation of the Weathermen with al Qaeda was totally disingenuous, but Bush started it when he declared war on terror seven years ago. Suddenly, any group that had ever used terror was supposed to be on the same footing with al Qaeda. Therefore, at least rhetorically, the US would consider the IRA, ETA, the PLO, etc., as though they’d blown up the World Trade Center. Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Ultimately, that tactic just seemed to ring a false note (everybody knew they weren’t bombing Belfast any time soon). But what also sounds a bit off is Ayers’s response to the attacks on him.

To his credit, he refuses to join what he calls “the Culture of Apology” by saying “I apologize if I offended anyone” or “Mistakes were made,” but at the same time, he refuses to label himself a terrorist and instead says he carried out “acts of extreme vandalism.”

I can understand why Ayers refuses to be painted with the same brush as bin Laden; but terrorism has had many faces, and his is one. The French Revolution kicked it off with Robespierre’s Terror, killing every “enemy of the Revolution” in sight. There have been countless incidents of state terror ever since—including too many of our Latin American allies during the Cold War. On the other end, we have religious terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, Hamas’s suicide bombers, and al Qaeda, where it’s all about the body count—guilt or innocence mattering for nothing. The Weather Underground along with the early PLO, Jewish Defense League, Baader-Meinhof, etc., lie in different places in the middle. These groups used bombings, kidnappings, vandalism, and killings to terrify the general populace and further their political goals.

The Weather Underground itself was formed as a rebuke against non-violent protest, calling for “militancy” and a “white fighting force” to achieve “the destruction of US imperialism and achieve a classless world: world communism.” They were perfectly willing to embrace violent means. It wasn’t until three of their own died while making a bomb in Greenwich village in 1970 that they decided that human casualties were no longer acceptable. The fact that they didn’t kill anybody beforehand was a happy accident. Afterwards, they took measures—bombing only after-hours and calling ahead of time—to avoid death, but the fact that they continued bombing shows that they were still willing to accept them.

Despite the lengths they went to to avoid death, their aims still stayed the same, “the destruction of US imperialism.” Now, I know they were idealistic flower children, but even they knew this could only be achieved through violent means. They accepted this. And they accepted the use of violence to achieve their political ends. In other words, they were perfectly willing to use terrorism. The Weathermen were definitely no sansculottes, Ton Ton Macoute, “freedom-fighting” Contras who attacked hospitals and schools, and definitely no al Qaeda, but they were definitely terrorists and not extreme vandals.

So, while Ayers says he refuses to apologize, in a strange way he has by trying to cloud what it was he truly was. Being seven years into the “War on Terror,” it is probably too late for us to have an honest dialogue on terrorism: its different forms and tactics; whether it’s an effective tactic or simply “cowardly” and “evil”; how we can effectively combat it. If we can’t expect such honesty from our political leaders, I definitely shouldn’t have expected it from “an old washed-up terrorist.” It’s just a shame that Ayers himself is more than willing to continue muddying the waters. After all, bombing a hopefully empty Pentagon (whether one agrees with it or not) is still terrorism; “bombing” an empty subway train with spray pain like early graffiti artists TAKI 183, Lady Pink, and Fab 5 Freddy is “extreme vandalism.”

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