[sixties-l] I was a terrorist (fwd)

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    Date: Sun, 03 Mar 2002 16:42:49 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: I was a terrorist

    I was a terrorist


    Where did it come from, the hatred that led pampered Americans to want to
    bring down the system in the 1960s? A surprising answer from one who was there

    [Photo] The author, in ponytail, with Cree Indians in 1974. He was on a
    Weather Underground assignment supporting the Native American movement.
    (Courtesy Jonathan Lerner)

    By Jonathan Lerner
    Sunday, February 24, 2002; Page W24

    I didn't grow up hungry, seething with inherited hurt in some refugee camp
    or ghetto -- but well-fed in Chevy Chase, in a big loving family, in a
    house full of books. My grandparents were struggling immigrants, but my
    parents were solidly middle-class, and when I approached adulthood in the
    mid-'60s, all the richness of this country was there for me. I could have
    been anything.

    Like many children of affluence, I was horrified by racism and poverty, and
    filled with idealism. The impulse was simple and honorable: Everybody
    should have opportunities like mine. I became an activist in the civil
    rights movement, and renewed my desire to perfect the world in response to
    Vietnam. Yet by the end of that decade I had become warped enough to help
    found the Weathermen, a cult of leftist cynicism and violence. We were
    contemptuous of others, convinced we had the answers, and willing to impose
    them through violence. In other words, we were political terrorists.

    That's not where I thought I was heading. I started out wanting to humanize
    the world, but ended up perverting my own best instincts and dreams. I
    lied. I stole. I put innocent people in danger. The only bombs I ever
    personally built were duds, though there were capable technicians in the
    group. Among the terrorists of history, however, we must rank low in havoc
    wreaked. Our bombs were low-power, left in restrooms mostly, at places like
    the Pentagon, police stations, corporate offices. Security was lax then.

    We didn't pretend to do real damage with those little devices. It was
    victory to elude capture, to reveal the vulnerabilities of the institutions
    we held responsible for war, poverty in the Third World, inequalities at
    home. Our real weapon was youthful swagger, which is cheap and thrilling to
    use, and magnifies well through the media. We gloried in our violence, and
    glorified it, and in so doing, we helped to create the atmosphere in which,
    to some inhabitants of the planet, terrorism now seems like right action.

    Take two snapshots of my past and lay them side by side. The first, one of
    my most magical early memories, is from a children's concert, in the Hall
    of the Americas at the Organization of American States -- a part of the Pax
    Americana I would later hope to destroy. I was invited forward that day to
    pluck the strings of a harp. I can close my eyes right now and feel that
    golden sound go through me. I was a sweet little boy. But I was not a nice
    young man.

    The second snapshot is from one of the last public events at which the
    Weathermen appeared -- the Vietnam Moratorium of November 1969, when half a
    million people came to Washington for a protest intended to be peaceful. As
    its centerpiece event, more than 40,000 people walked single-file from
    Arlington National Cemetery to the White House. Each carried a candle and a
    placard with the name of an American who had died in the war. "Many come
    from places like Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.," an observer
    wrote, in Life magazine, "where they tell me they have never marched and do
    not belong to any political organization. Among them are older couples who
    occasionally ask for a particular name. The monitors hand them the card
    swiftly, without asking the relationship."

    I stood in Lafayette Square with my comrades and heckled these people for
    their earnest longing for peace. Then we Weathermen stomped off to an
    unofficial event, an attempt to trash the embassy of the U.S.-backed South
    Vietnamese government. The cops wouldn't let us near it, but we weren't
    picky: Any damage would satisfy. I pulled a length of pipe from my pocket
    as we ran, and smashed the windshield of a parked Oldsmobile. Like the
    call-and-response chant of a civil rights picket line, it was answered up
    and down the block by shattering glass.

    Earlier that day, I had gone with several Weathermen to the office of the
    Moratorium's organizers. We presented ourselves there -- as described in
    Life, "flat and grim in their shades and work clothes and heavy boots" --
    to extort money. We dangled, for barter, the intimation that we might
    refrain from picking a fight with the police, and mentioned the figure
    $40,000. The Moratorium leaders didn't give us any money, but we wouldn't
    have cooled it if they had. By then we did not want conciliation, at any price.

    The Weathermen emerged in 1969 from a far more benign and idealistic
    leftist grass-roots movement, Students for a Democratic Society. Our
    faction's name was from a line of Bob Dylan's, appropriated as the title
    for a position paper, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the
    wind blows." To us, the wind was blowing only where we pointed -- meaning,
    in printable terms, "See things our way, or you're full of it."

    An earlier SDS slogan had been "Let the People Decide." Toward the end of
    that organization's life, some of us reserved the deciding for ourselves.
    "How many SDS elections did you rig?" a former Weatherman asked me, years
    later. I stole only one, but it was a crucial vote that made possible the
    Weathermen's takeover and evisceration of SDS. Along with two other SDS
    organizers who later, like me, were near the center of the Weathermen, I
    stuffed offending ballots into a brown grocery bag, and then dropped it in
    the trash.

    Where did I get this cynicism about political process, this lack of
    scruple, this delight in the sound of breaking glass? Certainly not at home.

    My parents were liberals, not radicals. Their boldest political gesture was
    attending the Lincoln Memorial concert by Marian Anderson when the
    Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let the African American
    singer perform in Constitution Hall. I was respectfully aware that many in
    my grandparents' and parents' generations had been labor activists and
    communists. But among my own relatives only Great-Aunt Bessie had been
    involved at all, and we made fun of her because she insisted into old age
    that the FBI was watching her.

    My siblings demonstrated against racism and the war; they participated in
    the era's cultural upheavals. But they were never hellbent on violence and
    breaking the law, as I became. Instead, they went on to engaged,
    unconventional careers: a modern dancer who became a psychologist, a
    psychologist who makes films and writes songs, an acupuncturist who leads a
    jazz band. Whatever separated me from them, it wasn't in our family background.

    My first political act, in 1961 when I was 13, was to join a picket line to
    integrate the McLean Gardens apartments in Northwest D.C. I went by myself
    that day. But I was inspired by some kids I knew from school who had
    already been to civil rights events. I was drawn to the cause -- and to
    them, because they espoused it, and because they were smart and cool and I
    wanted to be one of them.

    Over the next years, we collected canned food for black people in
    Mississippi who were boycotting white-owned businesses; we often skipped
    school to picket the White House. It felt good to be part of this thing for
    which some people were risking their lives, even if for us it was all fun.
    It felt wonderful to be part of a tight circle that was welcomed into an
    enormous movement where people referred to each other as sister and brother
    and marched to updated spirituals. It was spiritual. It was about
    connection, about healing the world.

    I went off to college, at Antioch in Ohio. There was an SDS chapter, but I
    never attended the meetings. SDS was then emerging from obscurity, thanks
    to the expansion of the war and the voracious draft, which put so many male
    students at risk; eventually it would boast hundreds of campus chapters, a
    network of regional offices, thousands of paid members, and hundreds of
    thousands who responded to its calls and rallied against the war. I would
    join demonstrations, add my passionate voice to the chanting. But I wasn't
    -- then or ever -- much interested in theoretical or strategic debates,
    which dominated SDS meetings. I was into art; the actions I liked best
    involved image and media, and in those days were called guerrilla theater.

    But Jeff Jones, my best friend, was a big radical on campus. That's not all
    we didn't have in common. He was a sunny, blond surfer from L.A. who'd been
    a counselor at YMCA camp, while I was an emotionally mixed-up, culturally
    pretentious East Coast bohemian wannabe. Antioch was small and familial,
    with no hard separation between the politicos like Jeff and the artists
    like me. How did we meet? Passing a joint in somebody's dorm room, maybe,
    or kibitzing on the student union steps. We responded to each other's
    cleverness, savored the ways we were exotic to each other.

    In 1967, after two years at Antioch, Jeff and I both decided --
    independently -- to drop out and move to New York. I did it to get involved
    in professional theater. He did it to join the regional staff of SDS. There
    was a community of Antiochians in New York -- there on student co-op work
    assignments, or, like the two of us, having left school. It was like a
    branch of the sweet academic village where we'd all met, grafted onto the
    big city. Jeff and I ran into each other in New York, and made a point of
    staying in touch.

    With a group of those transplanted Antiochians, I once tried an ambitious
    guerrilla theater. One of these friends had a film studio in a building
    facing Times Square. From its roof, on New Year's Eve, when millions of
    people would be in front of their televisions watching the ball drop, we
    would crash a radio-

    controlled toy airplane right into the ball, and then release a statement
    to the press decrying U.S. bombing of North Vietnam.

    Those toy planes, with their gasoline engines, look real -- not like
    jetliners, but like the single-engine craft an antiwar kamikaze might have
    commandeered then. At a time when people were starving themselves, even
    immolating themselves, to protest the war, a kamikaze-style attack wouldn't
    have been so far-fetched. We loved the idea of TV screens filled with the
    image of a crashing airplane; now of course I get an extra chill from this

    None of us had ever been close to the mechanism of the dropping ball. We
    paused for a brief discussion of what might happen. Was there a ledge to
    catch any falling, possibly flaming, debris? Or would the whole rig just
    tumble into the crowded street? What about the people watching from across
    the country? Mass panic? If anyone got hurt, we shortly concluded, it would
    just be their tough luck: Innocent people were dying every day in Vietnam,
    so why not at home? In the end, we couldn't get the little engine to start
    in the cold, so we'll never know.

    By the way, none of the other participants in this unstaged drama joined
    the Weathermen. They became, variously, a filmmaker, a muralist, a critic,
    the founder of a feminist press -- all using their radical sensibilities to
    touch people. As far as I know, none of them ever again did anything that
    could have hurt anybody. I wish I could say those things about myself -- or
    that I never had another such glib discussion about the possibility of
    injuring innocent people.

    I had gone to New York for love of art, but images of insurrection were
    everywhere. Race riots broke over America's cities, in those summers, as
    surely as bad storms. Newark, across the Hudson, went up, and I went with
    Jeff to an angry rally condemning the police response. The New York Review
    of Books ran an account of the Newark battle. The magazine's cover showed a
    schematic drawing of a gasoline bomb; this picture blazed for a fortnight
    from news kiosks all over the city. With a group of Jeff's SDS comrades, I
    watched the film "The Battle of Algiers," about the successful urban
    guerrilla war against the French: unannounced bombs in coffee bars, weapons
    hidden beneath chadors, French officers confounded by a diagram of the
    decentralized rebel organization -- as spread out, invisible and hard to
    dig up as the roots of an invasive tree. We left the theater breathless,
    giddy, inspired.

    Against all this, the theater and dance workshops I was doing seemed
    pitiful and unconnected. Also, I felt lonely -- and scared, as should any
    19-year-old attempting to break into theater who lacks dramatic talent and
    emotional armor. But within a few months, I was asked to join the SDS
    staff. Jeff's friends wanted me to start guerrilla theater groups in the
    campus chapters. And Jeff said he needed me: We would work together, get an
    apartment together. I felt close to these people, welcomed by them. And I
    was impossibly in love with Jeff -- although I was only murkily aware of it
    at the time.

    Is this too sketchy a motivation? Add this dark pencil stroke: My mother
    died of cancer when I was 16 and a senior in high school. My family fell
    apart for a while then. I was smart, worldly and bristling with
    touch-me-not attitude. But I really needed direction and supervision --
    hardly forthcoming at Antioch in those days -- and a firm embrace. I needed
    my mom. I was in worse shape than I knew. But to be an SDS staffer was to
    seem powerful, pulled together. By joining, in a single step I got a job
    description (theater director, office manager), a stance toward the world
    (as a member of an international radical movement), a place in a community
    that valued me (for my competence and jokes), and time with my best friend
    (but never enough of that). I felt the politics, and didn't disagree.
    Still, I joined SDS then, and the Weathermen later, mostly for
    psychological, not ideological, reasons.

    This is how it is in organizations that have the characteristics of cults,
    and maybe in any group of activists. You get a role that fills some hole in
    you. The hijacker Mohammed Atta, like me, came from a middle-class family
    and received a good education. He also happened to have, it was reported by
    the New York Times, an overbearing father who derided him for being timid
    and girlish and challenged him to be as successful as his older sisters, a
    professor and a physician. I don't doubt the fierceness of Atta's Islamic
    passion. But perhaps he also had something to say to his dad.

    In my experience, the glue that bound groups together was not so much
    ideology as a collective identity based on feeling different -- superior,
    that is -- continually reinforced by our state of escalating battle. At the
    center of SDS when I joined, we saw ourselves as part of the enormous youth
    culture and student movements; but as more serious, because we were trying
    to lead; more committed, because we were doing it full time, on
    "subsistence" salaries of $15 a week; and braver, because we could get into

    So we felt cooler than the rest of our generation: that our parties were
    more intense, our sexual and communal-living experiments more liberated and
    meaningful. We felt ourselves to be more heroic and inventive, closer to
    people like Che Guevara and Simone de Beauvoir than to your average
    peacenik or hippie.

    We were still driven by political realities -- racism at home, apartheid in
    Africa, police states in Latin America, and that relentless war being waged
    in our name. But we became increasingly frustrated, enraged, embittered. We
    felt torn between our roots in the nonviolent civil rights movement, and
    our desperation to do something -- almost anything -- powerful. Fighting
    internally over strategy, by 1969 SDS was whirling apart.

    This was provoked in part, it must be said, by the dirty tricks of the
    FBI's COINTELPRO campaign. These included classics like planting agents in
    our midst to cause dissension and spread rumors, and more inventive tactics
    like distributing a pornographic comic book depicting recognizable SDS and
    black-power leaders having sex and absconding with their organizations'
    treasuries. I once opened a letter that accused one of our regional
    organizers of being a secret agent. It was written in a jeering tone, and
    humiliatingly quoted another line of Bob Dylan's: "Something is happening
    here, but you don't know what it is." The organizer it named was someone I
    knew a bit, and liked, and whom I had considered brave and reliable. Of
    course I assumed that the letter was an instance of FBI disinformation. But
    I couldn't help myself: I made sure to never have a substantive
    conversation with him again, and struck him from the mental list of people
    I would ever trust. It works as simply as that.

    When I joined SDS, its inner circle was like a family. But later the
    Weathermen was more of a cult, especially in its formative period -- the
    second half of 1969. Paranoia plus egotism plus a worldview that
    obliterated all subtlety combined to create an atmosphere that was insane.

    You had to parrot the party line. Woe unto you if you uttered some
    political formulation that sounded too much like what a rival faction --
    whose members might have been close friends a few months back -- could have
    said; or if you had hesitated during that day's confrontation with the
    cops. You could be subjected to a "criticism/self-criticism" session, in
    which you were expected to abase yourself and recant, and to then "fight
    for yourself" and show reconstructed thought. Weatherman ideology,
    distilled to its simplistic essence, was this: that racism was the
    organizing principle of American history; that the United States was a
    thieving imperialist power; that the solution was revolution; and that the
    way to bring it about was to support black liberation at home and national
    liberation abroad. There were plenty of other people with such ideas. Some
    founded tenant unions and radio stations and legal defense teams. Some went
    on to analyze burning questions like those of natural resources, new
    technologies or sexual politics, all issues that the Weathermen --
    male-identified, and seeing through 19th-century Marxian lenses --
    addressed only reluctantly and smugly. We weren't even the only radicals
    who supported the idea of clandestine, armed action. But we were among the
    few who felt compelled, for reasons originating deep within our individual
    selves, to actually try it right this minute. We took this step because we
    had already placed ourselves on a self-propelling spiral of confrontation,
    never stepping off long enough to notice any other possible paths.

    In June 1969, a final rigged election delivered SDS into the hands of the
    Weathermen. The prize was the national machinery -- nothing fancy, just an
    office on a seedy Chicago block, with phone lines, a print shop and a
    membership list; plus intangibles like reputation and reach: SDS was the
    most visible organization on the American left, with contacts at nearly
    every campus and in movements around the world. But our goal of a
    revolutionary militia was the antithesis of big, unwieldy SDS. We quickly
    squandered all the resources, alienated everybody remotely close, and let
    SDS collapse.

    The following spring, when the United States invaded Cambodia and student
    protesters were killed at Jackson State in Mississippi and Kent State in
    Ohio, there were spontaneous strikes and reactions at hundreds of colleges
    and communities. But by then, SDS was dead. That awful war in Indochina
    dragged on for another five bloody years, in part because domestic
    opposition was in disarray. We Weathermen did many reprehensible things,
    but together they amount to very little next to the thousands of American
    and Indochinese lives lost and ruined between 1970 and 1975. A strong,
    focused student movement might have helped end the war sooner. Destroying
    SDS was our worst, most selfish act.

    Instead of building that movement, we spent the second half of 1969
    exhorting ourselves to "chaosify Amerikkka," contemplating "revolutionary
    suicide," proclaiming our willingness to "go out in a blaze of glory." Just
    like a cult, we spoke this rhetoric of apocalypse. The only element of the
    typical cult we lacked was the single charismatic leader; our '60s-style
    innovation was to have a whole group of them. These were mostly people who,
    like Jeff, possessed a combination of good looks, glib speech and daring
    posture that the rest of us found irresistible; I wasn't the only person
    who fell in love with them, one way or another. Still, fewer than 200
    people (at a time when SDS had more than 20,000 paid members) chose to join
    the Weathermen, forming 24-hour living and working groups -- we called them
    collectives, but now they might be called cells -- in fewer than a dozen

    Our new conviction was that white college students -- which we ourselves
    had been so recently -- were irremediably racist, and too soft and spoiled
    to be revolutionaries. Plenty of affluent white Americans -- radical or
    not, then and now -- have felt guilt over class and race. It's an
    understandable, if essentially useless, emotion. But we took our own bleak
    vision of white people to heart, transforming our guilt into self-hatred.

    We made an exception for working-class white street kids. We considered
    them sufficiently oppressed and alienated to have revolutionary potential.
    Also -- a big plus -- we figured they knew how to fight. So our Weather
    collectives would mount actions designed to attract them by showing that we
    were heavies, too: planting a Viet Cong flag at a beach, and then defending
    it; running through city high schools shouting, "Jailbreak!"

    We did usually end up in fights -- with the people we were hoping to
    attract, or the police; we didn't convert anybody. Because I worked in the
    office, and was supposed to keep things there running, I never got any
    licks in, myself. At our biggest action, the Days of Rage in Chicago in
    1969, I stood watching from the shadows as the group gathered, and followed
    for a few blocks until the trashing started. That's when I turned back, so
    I would be sure not to get busted. I was scared of fighting, so I didn't
    mind being excused; but it added another little twist of guilt.

    Our cultivated self-hatred fueled these provocative actions, and it fueled
    the exhausting way we lived. Nobody had his own room. A collective house
    would have little furniture, just a few mattresses on the floor; you slept
    where you fell. For something to wear, as one ex-comrade recalls, you
    picked through the communal pile to distinguish between "the clean dirties
    and the dirty dirties." Money, cars -- pretty much anything you brought
    with you -- was collectivized. We lived on peanut butter and jelly. Sleep
    and privacy were in short supply.

    Even sex was collectivized. Those with power routinely commandeered the
    bodies of those whom they desired. On a number of occasions there were
    group sexual encounters of 10, 20, 30 people. We called these orgies, but
    the term implies something more pleasurable and less forced than what I
    recall -- even though I was one of those who instigated them. We passed
    around crab lice, gonorrhea, pelvic inflammatory disease.

    What is called to mind by this voluntary state of collective delusion,
    deprivation and confrontation? Waco? Jonestown? Heaven's Gate? Unlike some
    cults, the organization didn't instruct us to break ties to our families,
    so much as to see what we could extract from them. But nobody maintained
    normal contact. How could you breezily chat with your folks when you were
    busy torching their hopes for you? My sister passed through Chicago and
    tried to see me; nobody at the office would tell her where I was that day
    -- off in the country, learning to shoot an M-1 carbine. Surely she would
    have been shocked; my family only knew me as a gentle kid. "We always
    thought you were just handling the money," my stepmother says now. Once I
    wrote to my mother's brother with some bogus story, trying to guilt-trip
    him into sending me a check. He replied that he would support me if I would
    return to school, but not now. "I am," he wrote, "part of the establishment
    you are trying to destroy." I circled this in red and taped the letter to
    my office door, a flag of my eagerness to cut myself off at the roots.

    Here is an exquisite recipe for slavishness: You see yourself having given
    everything for the group -- but you never know how long the group will
    deign to keep you. Individuals' standings were always shifting. People were
    frequently reassigned from one location to another. Rank-and-file members
    rose into and then were busted from positions of intermediate leadership --
    unpredictably, at the word of central committee members. Leading a
    criticism of somebody, or having sex with one of the male leaders if you
    were female, could enhance your position. If you were offed from the group,
    no one would trust you again -- or even talk to you. Sometimes members of
    the central committee were offed, though the rest of us never knew quite why.

    As people accumulated felony charges -- for assault and mob action -- and
    faced jail, the planning began in earnest for going underground. It was
    clear that not everyone would go; we underlings waited in excruciating
    tension, wondering who would get "the tap on the shoulder" that meant
    elevation to the heroic status of guerrilla.

    Because I was working in the office, handling the money -- secretly
    skimming a bit for the occasional greasy spoon breakfast -- and enjoying
    the protection of several top leaders who were friends, my circumstances
    were less brutal. I had a prestigious position, and more freedom than most
    members, with nobody bossing me around -- and a staff, in fact, to whom I
    gave orders. Writing leaflets, designing posters, giving press conferences,
    I got to glorify violence through imagery and words without having to
    actually fight; anyway, I was supposed to stay away from the battles and
    raise bail money. Plainclothes cops would follow when I went to the bank or
    the printer, but I was never snatched and beaten up by them, as some others
    were. And I came through that period without acquiring felony charges.

    But I didn't escape the sting of our internal culture. It finally dawned on
    people that I'd never been the subject of a criticism session. So, on a
    date when people from other city collectives were in Chicago for a mass
    court appearance, one was called. It commenced late in the evening, with me
    on a stool in the middle of a big circle. In my nightmarish recollection, I
    have blocked out the specific accusations. Probably they had to do with my
    never having proved myself in a street fight with the cops. And given how
    we all glorified battle, I was indeed racked with just such self-doubt. All
    I do remember is clamming up under the barrage of criticism, and wondering
    who all these people were. But I knew my best friend Jeff never uttered a
    peep in my defense. By dawn -- I noticed with a sinking sense of betrayal
    -- he had dozed off in his chair.

    Soon after, in February 1970, I was sent with a group of Weathermen on a
    propaganda trip of U.S. radicals to cut sugar cane in Cuba. After lunch one
    day, while I was sharpening my machete, a friend came running to tell me
    that a newscast somebody had picked up from Miami on a transistor radio
    said a town house on West 11th Street in New York had blown up, killing
    several people.

    In an instant I grasped what had occurred. One of our comrades' fathers
    owned a house on that street; I'd visited her there. Her collective must
    have been using the place as a bomb factory, and slipped up. A few weeks
    later, the Cuban authorities gave us copies of American newsweeklies that
    confirmed this, and passed along a verbal message from our leadership --
    conveyed, I have always assumed, through the Cuban representative at the
    United Nations -- telling us not to return. From those magazines, we also
    learned that the Weathermen had vanished underground. So with three others,
    I went to Europe. Our plan was to find false ID, make our way back to the
    States without being noticed, and then reconnect with the fugitive
    organization. We accomplished the first two parts, but not the third. For
    nearly a year, until a purely accidental encounter with a Weatherman
    comrade in a New York subway car, we four were "lost."

    The three who blew themselves up had climbed to the reckless pinnacle of
    Weatherman terrorism: They had, evidently, been making a bomb filled with
    nails, for an ROTC dance. Their deaths forced a period of reflection, and
    by the time we four reconnected in New York, the organization had calmed
    down. It was known now as the Weather Underground. Future bombings would
    have only symbolic, not human, targets; guns would not be used. This had
    been agreed to by everyone still a member; people deemed responsible for
    what had gone wrong, or seen as unremorseful, had been kicked out. And
    indeed, no one else was ever again physically injured by a Weather
    Underground bomb.

    The internal culture had changed, too. The madness had become hippie
    mellowness. Gone were the thuggish street-fighting stance, the leather
    jackets, lengths of chain and steel-toed boots. In their place were
    moccasins, love beads and long hair -- dyed, of course, for disguise. Jeff
    and his pals on the central committee had a sweet floppy dog now, and a
    vintage pickup truck. They looked like any stoned freaks en route to a
    commune. Youth culture was protective coloration for the fugitives.

    This was fine with me. I'd never felt comfortable trying to match the
    violent revolutionary archetype, despite my facility with the rhetoric. Now
    I looked forward to a more romantic, less scary organizational life --
    conducted around campfires in the countryside, maybe, rather than under
    bare bulbs in city basements.

    Maintaining people underground was hard. Facing no charges, I was told to
    live openly. Until the Weather Underground imploded in 1976, I remained a
    member. I was publicly active all that time, too, in antiwar activities and
    later in support of the militant Native American movement. I had continual
    contact with the fugitive friends I loved and idealized -- but never enough
    to make me happy. I was frequently watched by the police. So meeting my
    comrades required cover stories, disguises and elaborately confusing

    To spend a week with them, for instance, which I did a number of times, I
    might tell people I was going camping -- off the grid with some fictitious
    high school friend. Then I would leave my apartment, take a bus and then
    another to the house of a publicly unconnected supporter. There I would
    pick up my fake ID, put on a hat and false glasses. Then I would take a
    taxi to the train station, a train to a nearby city, and from there an
    airplane to the city where my underground friends were waiting.

    Still, I lived with the constant fear that I might accidentally blow my
    friends' cover. And I felt guilty over the extra sacrifices of their lives
    underground, and self-loathing for not being fully that which we revered, a

    So as long as I chose to stay with the organization, I remained weak,
    effaced and mildly but continually put down -- by myself as much as the
    group. The subtext of my own story was desire for an intimacy and belonging
    that was always just out of reach, never fully attainable. Other people had
    their own peculiar motivations. But for every member of the Weather
    Underground, there was something going on besides the politics, something
    to get or prove.

    As the movement that began in the '60s was petering out, for the Weather
    Underground self-perpetuation became the point. The same leaders stayed in
    place the whole time. The members were decentralized, so that even those of
    us who had known one another for years could be kept out of contact.
    Occasional squeaks of dissent were easily muted. Venally, the leaders lived
    better -- in bigger houses, driving cars instead of using public transport.
    They held their secret meetings with the richer, more glamorous supporters
    in nice restaurants, while lesser fugitives met their contacts at Burger King.

    And as usually happens to groups based on corruption, deceit and unexamined
    loyalties, the organization eventually tore itself apart. As the Vietnam
    War ended in 1975, taking the antiwar movement with it, our leaders hatched
    a classic Marxist-Leninist plot. Using secretly directed activists like me,
    the Weather Underground would start a "public" front organization. But the
    unaffiliated participants we gathered in turned out to be less stupid than
    this transparent scheme required, and soon angrily realized the thing was
    being controlled from someplace they couldn't quite see. They weren't smart
    enough to walk away, though. Instead -- in the grim communist tradition --
    they instigated a "rectification campaign" of accusation, recrimination and
    surreal miniature show trials, to determine just who among us had sold out
    the revolution most. And the Weather Underground quickly splintered apart.

    I had objected to this "front organization" plan, but as usual allowed
    myself to be told what to do. Now I felt bitter at everybody involved for
    our grandiosity and games. And at myself for caving in, and letting my
    emotions and personal loyalties be manipulated. I had one last, sour
    meeting with Jeff, in a Chinese restaurant, and got from him neither
    explanation nor apology. His mellifluous tongue was thick and dumb now: He
    could not explain his role, nor would he acknowledge how our friendship had
    been used. Suddenly it felt easy to walk away.

    A few people retained their zeal for revolutionary violence and later did
    things to land themselves in jail, where some still reside. For most of the
    Weathermen, like Jeff and me, the legal consequences were negligible. We
    came to in a daze. We crawled off to lick our wounds, learn to be
    responsible grown-ups -- hard work, for the inexperienced -- and come to
    terms with what we had done.

    It has taken me until now -- 25 years -- to fully realize how foolish and
    wrong we were, and to be able to say these things out loud. I had to wait
    for my father to die, so I wouldn't break his heart. I try not to
    gratuitously hurt people anymore. And I had to know for sure that the life
    I have made is good for me, and good for the world, and all mine. I still
    have my political sensitivities, to things like racism and the dangerously
    worsening disparity between the rich and poor of the world. But I do not
    need to be the one who changes it all. It feels strange to find myself
    supporting our country's current war. I certainly have my criticisms, my
    dismay that it is necessary, my fears of what it will provoke. But I am not
    confused at all about defending a society resilient enough to have me as a
    full participant -- after I devoted my youth to tearing it all down.
    Jonathan Lerner is at work on a novel, Alex Underground, based loosely on
    his experiences. He can be reached at www.penpowerpublishing.com.

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