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

From: Ron Jacobs (
Date: Tue Mar 05 2002 - 11:17:36 EST

  • Next message: Tom Nagy, Ph.D.: "Re: [sixties-l] Lying by Deconcontextualizing-- LBJ's Tape on C-SPAN"

    Nice story with interesting points--but the question remains, how can one
    have supposedly understood that the US government is an imperialist
    government and now support its wars. The only conclusion I can draw is
    that Mr. Lerner never truly understood the nature of imperialism and how
    the US is an imperialist country. Too bad. -ron jacobs

    At 07:01 PM 3/4/02 -0500, you wrote:
    >---------- Forwarded message ----------
    >Date: Sun, 03 Mar 2002 16:42:49 -0800
    >From: radtimes <>
    >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
    >[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
    >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
    >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
    >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

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