AMY GOODMAN: Right now we turn to the second part of our exclusive broadcast interview with former Weather Underground members Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Until just a few weeks ago, Ayers and his anti-war actions from nearly 40 years ago formed a central part of the Republican attack on Obama. In their first joint television interview, education professor Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn spoke to Democracy Now! Today we bring you the final part of the interview. I asked them about their thoughts on why the John McCain campaign had focused on Bill Ayers in particular and not on Bernardine Dohrn.
BILL AYERS: Well, I think that there’s a couple of things, one is that, you know, it’s worth noting that this was an * to a New York Times reporter, I have no regrets for opposing this government and its war with every ounce of my being. I don’t have anything to apologize for. I wish we had done more. And by we, I mean you, I mean me, I mean everybody who’s over 50. I wish we had all done more. And more does not mean a particular tactic. It means we should have been smarter, more determined, more capable of uniting, more able to think of ways to bring this to an end. Because democracy failed us in 1968. Profoundly. It failed us because we wanted a war to end. We couldn’t end it. And we couldn’t figure out how. So I think we all should have done more. And frankly, today, an honest assessment of the wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are not doing enough. We should be doing more. And what that means is, we should be thinking harder, uniting harder, and working harder for peace and justice.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: And knocking on doors. I mean, I think we have the opportunity right now, hundreds of thousands of people have just experienced their first time of talking to strangers, listening to strangers about politics and *about the future of the planet. That’s a remarkable opportunity, because we have to do a lot more listening and a lot more talking to deal with, really, the future of the planet, massive starvation, the destruction of water and rivers and oceans, and the relationship of all that to war and armament. I don’t see how we can move forward out of this economic crisis without massive demilitarizing of the U.S. empire machine.
BILL AYERS: And, and…
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I think that’s what we have to do, but how do we have that? I don’t have any formula for how we do that. I want to talk to everybody about how key that question is of how much money and resources and off the budget, you know, budgeting of our tax dollars goes into that unaccountable, highly privatized war machine of domination and mayhem. When we have so many fundamental human needs here and around the world. And what?
BILL AYERS: And I was going to just say, I mean, not only do we need to reframe, kind of, foreign policy to say could it be about justice, could we be a nation among nations rather than the most militarized, dominant kind of nation. But the second part of that is, could we invest in people and could we imagine an economy not based on the idea that what’s good for the most wealthy is going to trickle down and be good for all of us, but rather based on the idea that investing in education—very important—investing in Social Security, investing in health, investing in employment, investing in rebuilding. This is what could transform the whole situation. So we’re at a moment, and this is—I think connect these ideas, these demands, these movements is really where we’re headed.
AMY GOODMAN: In a part of The Weather Underground, the film, you are reading from Fugitive Days, Bernardine Dohrn, from Bill’s book, and you’re talking about—when you’re underground, you’re talking about being surveilled and harassed. This is 40 years later. We see the police infiltrate peace groups, terrorist databases with thousands of names, the latest revelations in Maryland—
people opposed to the death penalty who are working for peace; on a database, Catholic nuns; on a database.
But if you could go back, because you do in this book, in Fugitive Days, what it was like to live underground and how you both decided to resurface. Where you were, how you dealt with—well, actually, not being known where you were, and then what happened when you surfaced? How did you deal with the law? I mean, Bernardine, you’re a lawyer today.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: That’s a big, long question, Amy. We—you know, being underground was more ordinary than you can imagine. Even though it was an extraordinary kind of Alice-in-Wonderland-through-the-rabbit-h
We—and Bill writes about this quite beautifully, I think, you know, we had to invent what it meant. We had to try to figure out how to live, how to work, and we found ourselves thrown into a part of the economy, a largely invisible but huge part of the economy, where people work off the books, where people are not who they say. Massive immigrant and undocumented population. People who at that time were fleeing the draft or military service for moral reasons, not out of cowardice. And people who were trying to live—women who wanted to live as who they were. Gay and lesbian people who couldn’t tolerate being denied and stifled. So, there was a really rich sea of people transforming themselves and making themselves up and inventing themselves.
We had to live, you know, work jobs. I worked cleaning women’s houses. I worked in the fields cutting grapes. I worked as a waitress. So all the jobs, transient kind of jobs, that people do brought us, I think, back into touch with how we got thrust into the peace movement and the student activist movement of the 60’s and how hierarchical and unfair large parts of American society are. So, we took care of each other and interestingly enough, we were protected. A lot of people from the 60’s were painted as a fringe element. And in some ways, of course, our rhetoric was wildly overheated. But in fact, for 11 years, we were protected. Nobody turned us in. People helped take care of us even when they disagreed with us and wanted to sit down and argue about various choices and what was the priority to do. And, so, there was large sea of support. We were part of a big umbrella that hated what was being done by the Nixon administration and thought that there was a tradition in U.S. political life that was better.
So, in some ways, it’s very similar today, even though the tactics and the framing of things are different. The Bush administration has been utterly discredited and repudiated—unprecedented. We have to immediately move to, you know, overturn the military commission act, probably the worst piece of legislation passed. Well, I think it probably surpasses the alien sedition act that denies habeas corpus, that gives the U.S. And the President the secret ability to define torture, that pardons everybody for war crimes that have been committed. And come to some—I think we should do now what we failed to do in the Vietnam War, which is, you know, a new forum, a U.S. forum of a truth and reconciliation, independent commission. To hear testimony about the last eight years and to find out who was responsible for the worst crimes that were committed. And then, I don’t really care what happens in terms of how much prosecution and who’s sent to jail, but I think an honest recounting and an honest listening of who’s paying the price for these policies from the top is really called for.
I’ve been teaching a class on torture for the last six years. We had a young man who was in Iraq come talk to the class. He was an interrogator and came to realize that what he was doing was torture, and left the military and has written a book about it. He just reflects, to me, one of hundreds of thousands of young people who are struggling to come to an ethical understanding of their own life and their role in relationship to power in this moment. And I think our attention, you know, the 60’s is past. It’s interesting, it sets a context. I think without the 60’s, we wouldn’t be where we are now, and yet, I think, Bill and I feel very much like our job is to live in the present and to be part of today’s social struggles.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to speaking in the press, Bill Ayers, right now? You haven’t for many, many months since your name was first invoked.
BILL AYERS: Well, I mean it—you know, I speak all the time, so it doesn’t feel that unusual. Although, I didn’t want to comment on the presidential campaign while it was going on to the media. So that’s what—that’s the only thing that I didn’t do. Again, I couldn’t find a way—I couldn’t think of a way to disrupt the dishonest narrative of guilt by association or the dishonest narrative of unrepentent terrorists. I couldn’t find a way to object to that and push it back. So, that’s done now and moving on.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill, in the decision to resurface after 10 years that you and Bernardine made with your two boys, how did you resurface? What is the process?
BILL AYERS: See, I thought you were going to speak to that when you started.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I meant to speak to that.
BILL AYERS: Why don’t you say something?
BERNARDINE DOHRN: There were charges against me. We didn’t know—Bill was his usual generous and patient self. After the end of the Weather Underground organization, most people…
BILL AYERS: Which was right at the end of the war.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: Which was in 1976, right after the United States—well, let me just divert for one minute. How did the war in Vietnam end? This is one thing from the past that we might note, here, because to listen to the Republican campaign, you would think that somehow the U.S., you know, wasn’t defeated in Vietnam—that something shameful happened. In fact, the U.S. was militarily defeated and driven out of Vietnam, both by opposition here and by the Vietnamese people. So, we might just note that moment, because how the war ended does matter in terms of how this war might end—better, sooner, quicker, save more lives.
But we—I was stubborn, and I couldn’t bring myself to turn ourselves in. So, Bill was generous and easygoing and let me come to it by myself. We regrouped. We had a life organized around our two children. We worked at a school and worked and jobs and became child-centered parents to the best of our ability. I came to realize after the birth of our second child, who’s now a teacher—a middle school teacher, that, you know, they couldn’t continue like this and there was no political reason for to us stay underground. So, we agreed to turn ourselves in, in Chicago, and not completely knowing whether there were secret charges and what had happened. Of course, all the federal charges from the old days had been dismissed because of massive illegal F.B.I. activity, and several F.B.I. agents had been indicted. So, we came to Chicago, left our two boys with dear family friends, not knowing what would happen, and walked the gauntlet, really, into a hive of media—that’s my main memory of it—and then went back to our fifth floor walkup apartment in New York and resumed our lives there. Just changed our names, as the kids said.
BILL AYERS: And like everybody else, made our twisty ways towards, you know, back to school, to work, and that’s what we continue to do—trying to figure out how to name the moment that we’re in, how to participate in it. We’ve been very involved in the last couple of years in a movement-building process with lots and lots of friends, and we’re hopeful.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Are there any final regrets? And, also, what you felt so far as you’ve led your life above ground, underground, and above ground again—what you felt were the greatest successes?
BERNARDINE DOHRN: You know, of course we have regrets. I think our sectarian errors, but they’re easy to say, Amy, and really hard to do. That’s what I’ve come to realize. We can list off, you know, what we wish we’d done better. I’ve written about it extensively. Bill’s written about it extensively. But doing it right, of course, is hard. I think we have an opportunity now for unity, for connecting issues and for popular organizing. That’s how I see it. In my lifetime, I’ve seen young people change the world. So, I remain very hopeful in Birmingham, in Beijing, in Soweto, in Seattle, at Stonewall. Young people standing up, not with any particular tactic or with any particular form of militancy. You know, the bus riders into the South changed the world. So, ye’re in a perilous moment, but tremendously hopeful moment.
BILL AYERS: You know, I think that I would echo Bernardine’s regret. I think that if we’ve learned one thing from those perilous years, it’s that dogma, certainty, self-righteousness, sectarianism of all kinds is dangerous and self-defeating. So, to me, the rhythm that we tried to live our lives by and that we urge on our students and others is open your eyes, see the world as it really is. Act. Take some action within the world. Engage. And then, importantly, and something we forgot to do in 1970, doubt. Act and then doubt. Question yourself. What did you do right? What did you do wrong? And then act again. So that rhythm of opening your eyes, seeing the world, acting, doubting, acting, doubting, it seems to me is what ought to power us forward.
What I’m proudest of, what I feel most strongly about, is that we’ve had this extraordinary 40 years together. We’ve raised three of the most extraordinary young men that I can imagine, and they continue to kind of help us, inspire us, awe us, and I guess the other thing is, I think, that Bernardine mentioned we had her mother living with us the last five years of our her life, we had my father living with us the last three years of his life. They both died at home with a lot of dignity, and, I guess, I feel that’s the best accomplishment, those two things—our kids, our parents, and onward from here.
BERNARDINE DOHRN: I want to say one last thing. The best of the new Left and the best of the social struggles of today have at their core the valuing of human life. All human life. You have to say both parts of that because people in the United States have to find our place in the world. And in some ways get off the necks and the backs of people of the world. We have to live differently. We have to live, and I say this with all humility too, you know. We have to all together learn to live differently so that others may live. So that core notion that animates social justice movements is really the valuing of all human life.
AMY GOODMAN: Bernardine Dohrn, law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. Bill Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
If you would like a copy of today’s broadcast, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Up next, Professor Noam Chomsky. His first major address since the election. Stay with us.