NPR's Terry Gross Asks Bill Ayers About Palin-Prodded Death Threats

Unrepentant domestic terrorist Bill Ayers got a "distinguished professor" reception for most of the hour on NPR’s nationally distributed show Fresh Air with Terry Gross on Tuesday. But Gross was much more hostile to Bill O’Reilly back in 2003 than she was to Ayers. Gross set up Ayers with questions like this: "When Sarah Palin started talking bout how Obama was palling around with terrorists, meaning you, did you start getting a lot of death threats?" And: "When you were getting those death threats, did you think at any point that the McCain-Palin campaign had crossed the line into irresponsibility?" She asked the terrorist if the Republicans were inspiring violent thoughts.

For his part, Ayers insisted on blurring John McCain and even former Johnson aide Bill Moyers into a chart of terrorism, that America needs "a kind of truth and reconciliation process where we look at what everyone did, that we don't hold up the Weather Underground as the most insane and crazy and off-the-tracks group without also asking, what did you do, Robert McNamara? What did you do, Henry Kissinger? What did you do, John McCain? What did you do, Bill Moyers?"

Gross was not as admiring an interviewers as the Pacifica Radio hosts of Democracy Now in their November 14 interview. She did press Ayers on whether he needed to apologize for his actions, which he refused to do: "I think that I don't feel any real regret for taking action against this war." She mildly protested on factual matters as Ayers claimed again that the Weather Underground never killed anyone, including San Francisco policeman Brian O’Donnell. But she repeatedly described him as a "distinguished professor" who was a "focal point of the McCain-Palin campaign against Barack Obama." Gross quickly turned to whether Palin’s speeches were threatening to Ayers:

GROSS: Before we get to more of the charges that were made against you during the presidential campaign, I'm just so interested on what it was like to be you during the presidential campaign, like when Sarah Palin started talking bout how Obama was palling around with terrorists, meaning you, did you start getting a lot of death threats?

AYERS: Yes. But when the charge was made and the attempts to demonize me were made, it was very clear to me that that was a cartoon character or a caricature that was thrust up on the stage. And even though it looked alarmingly like me and it had my name, it wasn't me. So I ignored it. When the threats escalated, and they escalated terribly after Governor Palin had the pep rally where they chanted "kill him," it felt to me a little bit like the kind of - the moment in George Orwell's "1984," the Two Minutes Hate, where the party faithful would gather and the enemy would be cast on the screen and people would begin to work themselves into a frenzy of anger and hatred and begin chanting, kill him! Well, I did feel a little bit like Goldstein thrust into that role, and yet, I felt that most of the hate that was coming in was nutty and was, you know, from people who were just hyperventilating on their computers.

....But then also, part of the dishonest narrative that's going on -- and we'll probably get into this in a little bit -- has been the idea promoted by some people on Fox News and others that we were involved in lots of killings, which is absolutely not true. One of my friends in the Chicago Police Department, I was having coffee at a coffee shop and he stopped by. And we were chatting, and he said, so tell me, Bill. Did you guys kill cops in the '60s? And I said, absolutely not. And he said, oh, I didn't think so, but it's a discussion going on at the precinct. I said, well, tell people come on in here and we'll have a discussion about it. We'll talk about it.

Now where did he get that? Well, he got it from a big lie being spun on some of the blogs and some of the right-wing talk radio and talk television, and he got it because in the course of reporting about this campaign against me, this demonization, the New York Times ran an article about me that, you know, tried to discredit any of the charges. But it did say in 1970 there was a killing of a police officer in San Francisco credited to the Weather Underground. That's not true. That never happened. And yet there it is, sitting in the New York Times.

GROSS: But what never happened? The attack never happened? The death never happened? The Weather Underground association...

AYERS: The Weather Underground never killed a police officer, never tried to and never did.

GROSS: Was a police officer killed in that attack?

AYERS: There was a police officer killed in 1970 in San Francisco. It's an unsolved crime, and no one's ever, to my knowledge, credited the Weather Underground, and yet that was the quote used by the New York Times.

Gross took a second bite out of the apple that Sarah Palin was encouraging violence against Ayers:

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bill Ayers, who was a focal point of the McCain-Palin campaign against Barack Obama. Ayers was a radical activist against the war in Vietnam. His 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, has just been republished. Earlier, we were talking about the death threats that you were receiving, particularly after Sarah Palin started talking at rallies about how Obama was palling around with terrorists, meaning you. When you were getting those death threats, did you think at any point that the McCain-Palin campaign had crossed the line into irresponsibility?

AYERS: Yes. I think that -- I think much of the news media and I think the McCain-Palin campaign crossed into irresponsibility. Not just because there were personal threats against me but because they were creating a mob mentality. When people are chanting, kill him, at a rally, and it's ambiguous as to whether they're saying kill the candidate for president or kill this guy he was so-called palling around with, that's pretty dangerous stuff. And it seems to me they had a responsibility to put an end to it.

I think part of why the campaign -- one of the deep ironies of the campaign was that I was created as a caricature and thrown up on the stage in an attempt to sink the Obama campaign, and every time my name was mentioned, the poll numbers of McCain-Palin went down a point or two. So I think it didn't work. I think it's a great credit to the American people that it didn't work, mainly. But I think it was irresponsible to raise, and I think it was dangerous to raise. I think that they ought to -- they have a big responsibility to correct that.

GROSS: Now that the campaign is over, have the death threats stopped?

AYERS: Escalated.

GROSS: Escalated. Why, do you think?

AYERS: I'm not sure, but I've gotten a lot of threats that talk about civil war and the fact that we now have a socialist government and that the war is on. And I send all of these threats to the police because I don't know how to handle them.

GROSS: A lot of people called you an unrepentant terrorist, and I think a lot of people want to hear a full-fledged apology and feel like you haven't given it. I'm not going to ask you your answer to that question now. I want to save it for the end of the interview after we've heard more of your story.

Let's talk about the bombing of the Pentagon, which was an action that you were involved with, that the Weather Underground took credit for. First, why did you want to bomb the Pentagon? And when we say bomb, we're talking about a three-pound bomb of dynamite.

AYERS: Yeah. I mean, you know, again, it's kind of odd to talk about today, and the way I talk about it in "Fugitive Days" is I describe the feeling of anger and the feeling of frustration at being unable to end this war, and I describe in the book two groups of young Americans, one group despairing, a little bit off the tracks, also hopeful that things can change, entering into the Pentagon, finding a way to penetrate the Pentagon to put a small explosive device kind of in a restroom, and it knocks out a computer, an Air Force computer kind of unintentionally and shuts down the air war for a couple of days.

And then I describe another group of young Americans also despairing, also a bit off the tracks, marching into a Vietnamese village and murdering everyone who is alive and everything that's alive -- every animal, all the livestock -- and then burning the buildings to the ground, destroying the village. And I raise the question, what is terrorism?

And what I'm trying to do in that chapter - what I'm trying to do in thinking about it is figure out how do we have a kind of truth and reconciliation process where we look at what everyone did, that we don't hold up the Weather Underground as the most insane and crazy and off-the-tracks group without also asking, what did you do, Robert McNamara? What did you do, Henry Kissinger? What did you do, John McCain? What did you do, Bill Moyers?

In other words, all of us were there. We all had choices to make, and while many choices were extreme and off the tracks, I would be happy to stand up in a process where all of us are accounting for our deeds and our misdeeds and take responsibility for the things I actually did. And in that context, I think that the actions of the Weather Underground will be seen as yes, dramatic, yes, a screaming cry against this war, but not particularly destructive and not particularly horrible compared to other things that were going on.

Ayers denounced the 9/11 attacks, but then suggested that the American government has committed "parallel" acts of terror:

GROSS: Does the - your three-pound bomb in the Pentagon seem different post-9/11 when terrorists, you know, flew an airplane into the Pentagon and really destroyed a lot, killed people, hurt people.

AYERS: Yeah. I mean, I think the events of 9/11 were terrorism pure and simple. They were crimes against humanity. They were an attempt to murder and harm and intimidate, and you can see that so clearly. But then it's important to remember that terrorism can be the actions of a group of religious fanatics or a cult or a group of any kind of extremists, but it can also be the work of a government, a state, an organized, legitimized group of people. So when you say, you know, yes, does it look different? It does look different.

On the other hand, the American assault in Vietnam, the American assault in Iraq also looks like terror to me. And again, I would want to raise those things up in parallel and in comparison because we're not free of it. We're not innocent. Most of us would like to think of our government and our country as benign. But when you're looking down the barrel of a B-52 coming at you, the American power does not look benign.

At the very end of the interview, Gross nudged Ayers on the issue of whether he is unrepentant, and his answer was a roundabout yes:

GROSS: At the beginning of the interview, I said I'd save till the end the question that I know a lot of people have asked. A lot of people have called you an unrepentant terrorist. And I think a lot of people want to hear you make a full-fledged apology for some of your actions with the Weather Underground, such as bombing the Pentagon. And so I want you, now that we've heard a lot of your story, to give us your answer to that.

AYERS: Well, you know, my answer is that the kind of culture of apology doesn't appeal to me. If I had something specific to think about apologizing for, I might. But it's kind of a blanket statement that what we did was so extreme and so wrong that I ought to just say it was crazy. I respond by thinking it would be a good thing if everyone from that era stood up and said, this is what I did. Some people were official apologists for that - that, you know, murderous policy in Vietnam. Some people participated in it. Some people made the decisions.

We opposed it, and our opposition took an extreme form. It was never terrorism because it never targeted or in fact resulted in death or injury to anyone. We were issuing a screaming response to murder and to terror. And I think we were right in that. So, I don't think everything that we did was brilliant. And as I said, some of the examples of kind of extreme vandalism and property destruction could be challenged as stupid, backward, misguided and so on. But I don't think they can be conflated with terrorism nor should they be, and I think that I don't feel any real regret for taking action against this war.

But again, I'd be happy to stand up and measure what I did and what was negative and bad about what I did with what other people did. Looking backward, I don't see who did the right thing and who can claim that this is the proper way to end a war. Clearly, we're involved in a war now. Clearly, I'm not advocating any kind of action that's illegal, and I've been involved in the anti-war movement from the beginning. However, I don't know that any of us know how to stop this war in Iraq. We seem to be stalled. We seem unable to take the next step. And I'm hoping that we can continue to build a movement, an independent movement for peace that can put pressure on the new administration to do the right thing.

GROSS: Bill Ayers, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. AYERS: Thank you, Terry.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis