: This is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to continue our conversation now with Bill Ayers. We're talking about his past, his beliefs, and his book, "Fugitive Days," now available in paperback.
Why do you think it is that, you know, you've taken pains to explain in the book and in your subsequent appearances that you don't think it's OK to kill people in furtherance of your beliefs; why do you think it is that so many people are still angry with you? You had an appearance in Washington D.C. earlier in the week. You were picketed by people who still consider you to be a terrorist. Do you think it's that you haven't said I'm sorry, and do you think that would change the way people think about this?
AYERS: I'm not sure. I mean, I don't know what motivates people. I barely know what motivates myself. But I think that, you know, in our culture, saying you're sorry as a part of the kind of a ritual of living and prostrating yourself is kind of required, and even then, people are not forgiven.
: Is that so terrible, though? I mean, if you look at some of the institutions in our society, a number of states like Virginia and New Jersey have formally expressed regret for their role in slavery. .Institutions like the American Medical Association have expressed regret for their role in advancing discrimination.
AYERS: No, I think that's a marvelous thing, and I think that's what we should all do. And what I was going to say is on a deeper level. This political campaign may be the last time that the '60s is raised as a kind of issue in a national campaign. And I think that's probably a good thing mostly. That is, let's get beyond both the cultural wars and kind of the nostalgia for the '60s.
But there's a bad aspect to it, one bad aspect, and that is, we've never come to grips as a nation, as a culture, as a people with what happened in the '60s and what its meaning for is for us today. So I feel and I've often felt, I've advocated for years that there ought to really be a truth and reconciliation commission around the war in Vietnam.
And in that kind of a setting, if Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara and John Kerry and Bob Kerry and John McCain and myself, if we were all asked to say, what did you do and how does it measure up and what does it mean, I think we could learn a lot. And I think that you would see that my actions, while they were extreme, while they were vandalism, why they destroyed property, were pretty mild compared to what other people are responsible for.
In that truth telling, I think we could come to learn that invading another country, occupying another country, trying to be the policeman of the world is a terrible, disastrous direction not only for the world, but for us. I think we might then begin to think of ourselves as a nation among nations, a people among peoples, and I think it would be a healthier way to start moving forward.
: But there are those that would argue that this is yet more arrogance, that this is a democratic system, however imperfect, and that there are always going to be individuals who do not agree with you and that there is a system for addressing those disagreements, and you went outside of those boundaries. Even if it was never your intention to harm people, you went outside of those boundaries. What would you say to that?
AYERS: Well, it's true. We went outside those boundaries, and as I said, we broke the law. We broke the balance of propriety, no doubt of politeness. We even crossed boundaries of common sense. .That doesn't add up to terrorism.
You say, well, in a democracy, there's bound to be people disagreeing. .But if people didn't break some of those boundaries, for example, refusing the draft, which I also did. My brother went to jail for refusing to fight in Vietnam, which took real courage, or Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement breaking the law. And again and again, King was told, you should work through democracy, and his response was, I am working through democracy.
: But you did cross the line to a violent resistance from nonviolent protest.
AYERS: We crossed the line into destroying property, that's true, just like the Catholic left did. I would not say it's on the same scale as killing people. So here you have standing next to each other someone responsible for the deaths of a million people and someone who destroyed a computer in the Pentagon. How do you measure those two?
: In the course of the campaign, John McCain was asked about his association with another person who went outside the boundaries, G. Gordon Liddy. He was asked, what's the difference? .You've palled around with G. Gordon Liddy, and if Barack Obama had an association with Bill Ayers, what's the difference?
And one of the things that John McCain said was, well, Gordon Liddy did his time. He was prosecuted. He served time, and he paid his debt, as it were. You did eventually turn yourself in to the authorities. I remember some of the groups who turned themselves in were fined or got probation. .The charges against you were dropped.
First of all, I wonder why that is, and secondly, I wonder, do you think that you might be viewed differently if you had paid a price, as it were, in addition to the price that you paid by going underground or disrupting your life in other ways?
AYERS: Well, I mean, I paid the price that the law asked me to pay, right? The reason that the conspiracy charges against me were dropped is because of lot of government misconduct. It's often reported that it was a technicality. Not at all.
It was illegal actions by the Justice Department and the FBI, including break-ins, wiretaps, beatings. I mean, they had a written plan to kidnap my partner of 40 years, Bernardine Dohrn's, nephew, my nephew who was two years old in order to get us to turn ourselves in. That's illegal. That's not something that's a minor technicality, and they decided they couldn't go before a jury and present that evidence and get a conviction. That was their decision. So I faced the law in the same way that Gordon Liddy faced the law.
: You said that people need to view your actions in context, that America was involved in an unjust war in Vietnam that killed thousands of innocent civilians. Many people in the Middle East and some Americans argue that the war that the U.S. is currently fighting in Iraq is unjust, that it was based on false evidence, and that has claimed thousands of innocent lives. Do you think that violent resistance would be justified now?
AYERS: I think that resistance is justified now. And I've never been a tactician, and I don't argue about tactics, but what I do think is that we, you know, I said - you quoted me saying we haven't done enough. We haven't done enough to end this war.
This war is a war that was based on a lie. It's illegal at its base. It's immoral. And while it's cost thousands of American lives unnecessarily, unnecessarily, it's cost tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and that's something we should feel the weight of. We should feel responsibility for them.
So I'm involved in the anti-war movement today, and I wish we would do more. And by more, I mean I wish we would be smarter, more effective, more unified, more creative, more imaginative, and tougher, and I think we could bring this war to an end.
: What lessons do you want people to draw from your personal history that you've detailed for us in the book and also what you're talking about now in the speaking engagements that you're doing now to try to clarify the record? What do you want people to think about you?
AYERS: Well, the themes of my life and the themes of that book but also the themes of my teaching follow a certain rhythm. And part of it is that we all have to open our eyes. We have to not delude ourselves into thinking that the world is some kind of a fairy land that we imagine. We have to open our eyes to the unnecessary pain, the undeserved suffering that goes on all over the world.
Once we open our eyes, we have a responsibility to act. And once we act, we have a responsibility to doubt. But if all you do is doubt, you're paralyzed. You must act again, and then you must doubt again. And that's a process that never ends through your whole life.
: Bill Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois. His book "Fugitive Days" is now available in paperback. He joined us from Chicago Public Radio. .Thank you so much for speaking with us.
AYERS: Thank you, Michel.
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