No one who knows me would ever consider me a domestic terrorist. I am, in fact, a pacifist. You may think that’s naive, but it would be a real stretch to consider my pacifism to be the same as terrorism, even if you think it helps terrorism (in which case I strenuously disagree). I’m a doctor and take the responsibility to heal pretty seriously. Barack Obama is being accused of “palling around with terrorists” because he has had an association with people the McCain campaign decided they want to call domestic terrorists purely for the purpose of inferring guilt — guilt, literally, by association. So in the interests of full disclosure and for the purpose of making a clear statement, I declare that by their standard I’ve palled around with a few domestic terrorists in my time. Most of them weren’t terrorists at all. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll concede some could plausibly be described as low level domestic terrorists. Like Bill Ayres. Although I don’t know Bill Ayres from a hole in the wall, I may indeed have “palled around with him” once. I have no idea. Here’s the story.
It’s no secret here, or anywhere else, that I am opposed to the war in Iraq. It’s not a new stance for me. I opposed the intervention in Afghanistan, the first gulf war, the military adventures in Grenada, the Panama Canal, Nicaragua. And of course the war in Vietnam. I opposed that war before it was even recognized as a war, traveling by bus in February 1962 from my college perch in Wisconsin to Washington, DC, protesting the role of US advisors as intervenors in a civil war. JFK sent out coffee and doughnuts to picketers outside the White House (how times have changed!), although I confess at that moment I was dining on Chinese food nearby. It was cold in February. Anyway, I have been pretty consistent and I think I have been shown right in every one of these instances. Some of you may feel the jury is still out on Afghanistan but for me it was wrong from the outset and I have said it here on multiple occasions (here, here, here, here). Not news. But back to palling around with terrorists.
I was pretty deep into the anti-Vietnam war movement in the sixties. I helped found a draft resistance organization for medical students and doctors and resisted the draft myself (that’s another story, of course; maybe I’ll have reason to give some of the details another time). The anti-war movement was a major part of my life for about ten years and it’s fair to way I was generally obsessed with the war. I lived in a student style one bedroom apartment in a basement in those days, although by that time I had graduated from medical school and wasn’t a student any more. I was starting my career in research and paid so poorly I couldn’t afford more. As part of my obsession I had set up a TV antenna on the apartment building roof, with 300 ohm twin lead running down the side of the building (the manager was absentee).Its only purpose was to get the TV station in Manchester, New Hampshire because they ran one of the network news shows a half hour later than the latest in Cambridge, where I lived then. That way I could see ABC, CBS and NBC one after the other and then pick up the local public TV station at 7 pm, which had its own 15 minute news (The News with Louis Lyons, sort of like PBS’s Newshour; independent and more objective than the networks). And that was all the broadcast news in those days. No cable, no AM talk radio. FM was mainly music. No internet, although there were some alternative weekly newspapers. As I said, I was obsessed with the war. If you are obsessed with the election and check the polls compulsively and visit DailyKos every 5 minutes, you know what I mean. Obsessed.
I didn’t just watch the news, of course. Among other things, I was active with the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), an organization that started in the early sixties providing medical support for the Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights movement (I cannot claim involvement with them at that point, alas). By the mid to late sixties MCHR had taken on a whole host of medical issues, including national health care and access to care for the poor, as well as medical support for “the movement.” I was part of the leadership in MCHR in Boston and nationally, but I had lots of company. Many medical and nursing students and young doctors and nurses were politically active in different ways, and MCHR was one of them (by the way, I still see many of my colleagues from those days and they remain politically active and dedicated; it’s not true that yesterday’s radicals have become today’s fat and satisfied conservatives).
Providing medical support for “the movement” meant a lot of things. We weren’t particularly choosy. It was a “united front” strategy and we supported almost anyone who, like us, opposed the vicious war that was causing an unbelievable loss of life on a daily basis. Each day the US military announced a “body count” of enemy and the news announced hundreds of US soldiers killed in action — hundreds a day, not hundreds a month! So I traveled to the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 as part of an MCHR medical aid team, taking turns driving overnight in the Boston Draft Resistance Group’s VW van. In the five days of the Democratic Convention I saw so much violence up close I became permanently turned off of violent means for the rest of my life. Some of those five days my white coat was covered with blood of profusely bleeding scalp wounds from police batons; at once point I was almost permanently dispatched myself when a frightened police rookie, who had tripped in the midst of a panicking crowd, himself panicked and swung his rifle at me like a baseball bat, just missing my spleen by a half inch and doing a roundhouse 360. He was pretty scared and so was I. It all happened fast in the midst of chaos. Tear gas (“CS gas”) was everywhere and three times I ran into clouds of it in the Grant or Lincoln Park skirmishes, chasing demonstrators who had become disoriented and run the wrong way. If you’ve ever been gassed, you know what this is like. I’ve had a chronic dry cough since those days. It wasn’t all trauma, of course. Abbie Hoffman was bothered by a cold and cough. He wanted cough medicine. But it had to have codeine in it. I disappointed him.
Most demonstrators at the Chicago convention were basically peaceful, but mad as hell. And some weren’t so peaceful. In particular a small faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was already considering a tactic of “bringing the war home.” I was never a member of SDS (my college days preceded their existence), nor was I a member of any other group or sectarian political party. But until 1967 or 1968 SDS was the kind of New Left group that had objectives I could agree with. While the Battle Against the War on campus fueled tremendous growth in SDS, it soon started to engage in the kind of internecine warfare that was the downfall of one left wing group after another. By 1969 it was essentially self-destructed with the help of another group, the infantile ultra leftists of the Progressive Labor Party (“PL”). Perhaps that comment betrays my continuing contempt and bitterness about PL, a group that has done immeasurable damage to the American Left, not just SDS. [NB: This account simplifies a very complicated situation. If it interests you there are a number of memoirs of participants that will fill in the details, although the sectarianism of those days survives in today's accounts. One I read recently was by an SDS leader of the non-violent side, Carl Oglesby (Ravens in the Storm).]
By 1970, one of these SDS splinter groups, calling itself The Weathermen (after a line in Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), had gone underground. They proceeded to wage their own war at home. This was a pretty small group, maybe a dozen former SDSers. Among them were Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayres. They styled themselves as revolutionaries in the mold of Che Guevara and they took themselves very seriously. The Weathermen considered the State to be at war with them and the Vietnamese people and they fought back — quite literally. This included at least one bank robbery, where a guard was killed, and a handful of bombings. This was pretty bad, but was still on a tiny scale. Yes, this should be considered terrorism. But so should bombing and shooting civilians in Vietnam. State terrorism is still terrorism and both should be condemned, although in terms of scope there is no comparison.
That’s by way of background. Now back to palling around with terrorists. It’s after the Convention (and much else) and I’m still in Cambridge, obsessed with the war, enraged but feeling helpless. No matter what we did, no matter how big our demonstrations (and I was part of every major anti-war demonstration of the period up and down the east coast), no matter how much public opinion had turned against it, the war went on and on and the killing went on and on, all on an almost unimaginable scale. Day after day of watching the news and listening to the body counts and GI deaths. Daily. It was almost unendurable, unbelievably discouraging and demoralizing. But we kept doing what we could (we had no other choice), and this included providing medical care for anyone and everyone who needed it. Street people and kids in Harvard Square, demonstrations, the Black Panther Party. And it wasn’t just medical care. For a time I was one of the Trustees of an American Friends Service Committee Bail Fund. I used to get calls in the middle of the night about some kid picked up with “burglar’s tools” in his pocket (usually this meant a screw driver) who was locked up and couldn’t even make nominal bail. I got other calls, too.
One night, sometime in 1970 or 1971, I got one of these late night calls to come to the top floor of a three decker in a decaying Cambridge neighborhood. AllI knew was that some political people had been attacked and were hurt. I met two of my MCHR colleagues (both women) and we set off for Putnam Avenue. When we got there we found Mark Rudd and a some of his Weathermen comrades, by then “underground” (we didn’t know that, of course). They had indeed gotten into a fight with some members of Progressive Labor and had an assortment of contusions, lacerations and bruises. Nothing much. Even my rudimentary surgical skills could handle it.
Was Bill Ayres in this group? Probably. Needless to say there were no introductions. I knew Mark Rudd because he was a well known figure, but there were at least a half dozen or a dozen others and the Weathermen Underground never had many people in it. I will freely admit these guys were now pretty scary. At one point Rudd stood there, while we were occupied with our first aid stuff, clinking a tire chain up and down, while someone else announced, “Capitalist doctors are still pigs and if necessary will be offed.” “Being offed” meant becoming not alive. We got out of there at the first opportunity.
That was then. The world has changed a lot and so have The Weathermen, including Bill Ayres, although he remains committed to positive social change. I never knew him personally, but I’m pretty sure I “palled around with him” late that night in Cambrdige almost 40 years ago.
Does that mean I can’t run for President?