I believe the “demonization” of Bill Ayers — to use the 1960s anti-war activist’s own words, in a recent interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” — by the Republican tandem of John McCain and Sarah Palin, and in nationwide ads provided by the conservative right wing of the party, enabled our country to approach, for me anyway, record-setting standards for despicable behavior that are both new lows for common decency and new highs for hypocrisy in a presidential campaign.
The bloodthirsty cries from the Republican faithful in cultlike response to the McCain-Palin branding of Ayers as a “terrorist” make it very clear a history lesson is vitally needed to determine who is worthy of being praised as a “patriot” and who should forever be damned as a “terrorist.”
Indeed, to King George our sacred Founding Fathers, our much beloved and revered “American revolutionaries” — men such as Adams, Paine, Hancock, Jefferson, Franklin, et al — were policy violating, lawbreaking “terrorists” who deserved to be hanged for treason.
Then, of course, to racists past and present, there is jailed civil rights leader and “terrorist” Martin Luther King. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote: “…there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but also a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
King concluded his thoughts on this by noting: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
Defying the Johnson and Nixon regimes for their immoral and murderous behavior, the anti-Vietnam War, underground Weatherman operation featured some of the best and brightest of my generation, driven to the ultimate frustration to the stop the murder of so many innocent people, including more than 68,000 of our own soldiers.
In my view, individuals like Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Jeff Jones, Eleanor Stein and others were the ultimate patriotic heroes of the era. Of this volatile period, I have read that novelist Stephen King once said, “Our generation blew it.” My exasperated response to that is: “What the hell more could we have done?” All the individuals I named above now are college teachers, lawyers or environmental activists. Back then they were willing to take, yes, extreme measures when many of the rest of us so-called “student activists” of impending draft age and military availability felt resigned to leave things to fate, like a high draft number, National Guard or Reserve assignments, or just being fortunate sons of wealth and privilege.
In 1970 I “dodged” the draft by joining a National Guard unit. Today, there are not invectives strong enough to express the revulsion I feel regarding the hypocrisy of men such as George W. Bush, who clearly used the National Guard to avoid combat service. He then abused that very system to put men and women into harm’s way for tour after tour of duty of highly questionable “national security” service. Dick Cheney’s shameful cowardice in the face of the draft is a matter of open public record. Thinking of how these two men handled their draft situations makes me wonder how any thoughtful Americans ever could vilify a man like Ayers while praising and supporting the Bush-Cheney ticket for two terms.
Evil incarnate to me isn’t people putting their lives, along with their philosophies, on the line to stop an inhumane war. It’s an individual like Gen. William Westmoreland accepting honorariums in excess of $50,000 to defend a policy the pages of Daniel Ellsberg’s “Pentagon Papers” told us were a complete lie. It’s former Sec-retary of Defense Robert McNamara writing a best-selling book and accepting honorariums of $50,000 or more to tell his audiences that, yes, he rubberstamped a genocidal program in Vietnam knowing it was wrong.
Guess there’s really something to be taken from the late songwriter Warren Zevon’s line: “It’s the home of the brave, and the land of the free … where the less you know, the better off you’ll be.”
Ed Rice of Orono is the author of “Baseball’s First Indian” and “Native Trailblazer,” about American Indian athletes Louis Sockalexis and Andrew Sockalexis. He also is editor of a book of essays on the fight to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease, “If They Could Only Hear Me.”