November 18th was the thirtieth anniversary of Jonestown. Since it was from San Francisco, it gets a lot of attention around here: the pastor leading the memorial service lost twenty-seven (27) family members in the massacre. Every year I hear about it on the radio and it makes me stop and think, usually about how casually and humorously we use the phrase "drinking the Kool-Aid", but this year there was also Bill Ayers, the now-famous guy from the Weather Underground, on Fresh Air. Ayers said (starting around 16:00 in the interview):
Perhaps more importantly, the black movement for civil rights came out fairly strongly, and prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King, came out against the war, and that began to really turn the tide. But most important, perhaps, veterans came home and told the truth about what they saw and what they were asked to do there. At that moment, Lyndon Johnson announces that he won't run for reelection, that he'll try to end the war. That was March 31st, 1968. Those of us in the anti-war movement were jubilant. We felt that we had won an important and a decisive victory to end the killing. Three years of war, more than enough. Let's end it.
Four days later Martin Luther King was dead. Two months later Robert Kennedy was dead, and a couple of months after that it was clear the war wouldn't end but would expand. And so the question facing us was, in a situation where the American people have come out against the war, the people of the world have been against the war for much longer, what do you do when 2,000 people a week are being murdered? How do you respond to that?
And the question was answered in a variety of ways. Some people went into the Democratic Party and tried to build a peace wing. Some people left for Europe and Africa and said they had to leave the madness. Some people organized communes and alternative communities. Some people went into factories and organized the industrial working class. And we decided that we would try to create an organization that could survive what we thought of as kind of impending American fascism and take the war to the warmakers.
Now, were we brilliant? I don't think so. Were we leading? No. Was our strategy or our idea particularly profound? I don't think so. But if you think of any of those alternative courses of action, what should we have done? Who did the right thing and who can claim that they knew exactly how this thing would play out and that they did the perfect kind of response? I would argue that none of us did the right thing, that all of us did something that was right and all of us tried our best and none of those things are completely nuts, but none of those things actually accomplished what we wanted.
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.
I ignore the element of self-defense in what he says, and listen to the situation he describes. Weatherman and Jonestown represent to me two different threads of a societal insanity that those of us who didn't live through it have a hard time imagining. The country has been trying to recover from it all these years, but for the younger generations it's as though we're visiting the area of a nuclear explosion and all we see is the thermal shadows. It's hard to imagine our selves, siblings and friends being drafted to go kill people we wouldn't have cared much about, in a setup pretty dubious even by Cold War standards. The gaping rifts opened up in subcultures and families and colleges and schools and workplaces.
Much to my parents' dismay at discovering they lived through a historical period distant enough to study, I took a class on the 60s in high school. And as much as the last 8 years has been an astonishing decline in American civilization--and honestly, we had no idea it even had that far to fall, but BushCo showed us, and we won't forget--we've grown up with the cynicism to psychologically handle it. Even better, to judge from the folks in their early 20s who got fired up for the Obama campaign, what's cynicism for my generation is just perspective for theirs. They draw the same lessons from history, but without our bitterness. I don't know if it's because they inherited a different remembrance from their parents (who are generally younger than mine), or just because they've grown up an extra decade removed from the events, or what.
It's amazing to watch things change. =)