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The Case of the Terrorist Emeritus

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

It finally happened. A board of trustees at a state university has acted as if it had a moral trust to guard, not just fundraising to do. That's the remarkable news out of the University of Illinois, where the board is chaired by Christopher Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy. His father, the charismatic U.S. senator, brother of John F. Kennedy, and the Democratic Party's rising hope, was cut down in his hour of triumph -- June 5, 1968 -- after just having won a key presidential primary in California.

It was a year of assassinations, and of tumult and violence in general: The greatest of American civil-rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., had been killed only a couple of months before, a demoralized president had decided not to seek re-election that year, the country was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam, mass demonstrations and mutual recriminations dominated the news, and now a leading presidential candidate had been murdered. Quite a year. And, to think, some look back on the anarchic Sixties fondly.

Robert F. Kennedy's killer, a fanatic named Sirhan Sirhan, still resides at Pleasant Valley State Prison in California. Permanently, one hopes, in lieu of the death penalty he received but that was never carried out. (The state of California would rule capital punishment unconstitutional.)

William Ayers, the once prominent terrorist who now leads a second and quieter life as a professor at the University of Illinois, dedicated a book to this same Sirhan Sirhan in 1974. A cofounder of the Weather Underground, the professor would go on to have it both ways -- describing himself a kind of freedom fighter while denying that he was ever into violence. It's debatable which claim is the more dubious.

But the professor's rise in academe has been undeniable. He found his niche at the university in education, of course, one of the more nebulous academic specialties. After a long and well-paid career, he was due for routine promotion to professor emeritus on his retirement.

But as luck (or maybe justice) would have it, Christopher Kennedy turned up on the university's board of trustees. And noticed that it was about to honor the professor who'd dedicated a book to his father's assassin. And blew the whistle. The whole board backed him up by turning down Bill Ayers' designation as professor emeritus, a title that hasn't been taken this seriously in years.

Emeritus status for the old terrorist (who now modestly declines that title) is now up in the air as the university's faculty decides whether to join ranks behind its distinguished if slightly bloody colleague.

You have to wonder if anybody would have objected to this mockery of higher education, and justice, if a Kennedy hadn't happened to be chairman of the university's board of trustees. In a better world, the whole faculty would have risen in protest at the very idea of honoring such a man. Instead it may rise to his defense.

Not just the faculty should have protested this sham. What about the students? Or just citizens in general? Don't we all have an interest in education? And in civil discourse? And what could endanger it so directly as deciding that the best way to answer an opponent is to shoot him down? Yet here is a professor of "education" who dedicates a work to someone who conducts political dialogue with a .22 Iver Johnson. And no one protests--not till the matter gets to the board of trustees. Let's be thankful for that much. It's about time somebody noticed how low the standards of "higher" education can be.

These days the man who helped found an outfit he once described as "an American Red Army," now says it was guilty only of "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism." The Weathermen, the talented Mr. Ayers explains, were guilty only of "attacks on property, never on people. . . . it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends."

Really? He could have fooled me. In his heyday back in 1969 Chicago, aka the Days of Rage, his comrades attacked police and civilian targets alike. Even if they had been choosier in selecting their victims, is Mr. Ayers contending it's OK to kill and injure people discriminately?

The rhetorical distance between Bill Ayers' old memoir, "Fugitive Days," and the mild persona he now adopts on the op-ed page of the New York Times is impressive mainly for its chutzpah. For in his memoir, which might as well have been a confession in full, he wrote proudly of having "participated in the bombings of New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, of the Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972."

Of the day he bombed the Pentagon, Bill Ayers recalled: "Everything was absolutely ideal. . . . The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them."

There's a lot more of that kind of thing in his literary works: "There's something about a good bomb. ... Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down." The closest the man can come to poetry, evidently, is to dream of violence.

Ayers once defended his terrorist past in an interview that appeared, with perfect timing, in an interview in the Times published on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001. The events of that day took some of the shine off his remarks. Or were those terrorists just practicing "symbolic acts of extreme vandalism," too?

Lest we forget, people were killed during the Weathermen's reign of terror, notably three Weathermen -- including Ayers' then-girlfriend Diana Oughton. They blew themselves up accidentally in their Greenwich Village townhouse while preparing a bomb that had been intended for an Army dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

Just because terrorism is incompetent doesn't make it any the less terrorism. Or as a more honest Bill Ayers once admitted, that bomb could have done a lot more damage if it hadn't killed the terrorists themselves, "tearing through windows and walls and, yes, people, too." Instead, it tore through the terrorists. There is a raw justice in these matters.

But the greatest violence Bill Ayers has done, and continues to do, is to the language. He now presents a campaign of terror as just vandalism, and his old speeches as just a lot of posturing. ("Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at.") Today, thanks to his remarkable forgettery, he can't even remember saying such things. And he was politic enough to downplay his friendship with another Chicagoan, Barack Obama, once the presidential campaign of 2008 took off.

Bill Ayers may be willing to twist the simple meaning of words, but he can't seem to admit their power, and take responsibility for the effect his own might have had on impressionable young minds. He might have been well forgotten by now, and left free to twist history at his leisure in public appearances as a professor emeritus, if only a university's board of trustees hadn't proven true to its trust.

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