Bill Ayers: The United States Is the Foremost Threat to World Peace Today.
Bill Ayers says, according to the most standard and reliable definitions of terrorism, "US is indeed a terrorist nation." He adds, "It's also the greatest purveyor of violence on earth over the past half century, and the foremost threat to world peace today."
Bill Ayers, a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, believes that despite its destructive and dreadful impacts on the livings of American people and other nations across the world, the US imperialism is "in a decisive decline."
"US imperialism is in decisive decline today as an economic and political power even as it is expanding as a ferocious and aggressive military power. This combination-decline and ascent-makes this a particularly unstable, dangerous, and urgent moment on the clock of the universe," he argued.
"I think the US should immediately close all military bases and installations abroad, withdraw all troops on foreign soil including all mercenary fighters, end all military aid to Israel, and unilaterally decommission its nuclear arsenal," Bill Ayers added.
Bill Ayers is a former leader in the 1960s counterculture movement that was formed to oppose the US war on Vietnam. He is the co-founder of the Weather Underground group, which was a left-wing organization founded on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan in 1969 to champion the cause of the African-Americans and the opponents of Vietnam War.
For his activism and his vocal opposition to the US military expeditions, Bill Ayers received very serious death threats and hate messages that were even sometimes directly sent to his home address. Ayers lived in the neighborhood of Barack Obama before he became the US President in 2008, and from 1999 to 2002, they jointly served on the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago.
To discuss the ups and downs of the US foreign policy, the White House's military expeditions, the project of War on Terror and its failures and the current state of civil liberties in the United States, FNA spoke to Mr. Bill Ayers in an exclusive interview. Here is the full text of this in-depth interview.
Q: You've called the United State a "terrorist nation." It's the US government, however, that usually accuses other nations of sponsoring terrorism, and designates its adversaries as state sponsors of terrorism. What's your logical argument for calling the United States a terrorist nation? Is it because of the numerous military operations it has been conducting across the world and the high rate of civilian casualties resulting from the US wars of aggression?
A: The word "terrorist" is used so frequently and in so many wildly diverse contexts in the US today that it resists any logic whatsoever. Three young men breaking windows at an anti-war mobilization are charged by the state with "terrorism;" a whistle-blower determined to expose illegal government surveillance is referred to by the bought media and the political establishment as a "terrorist;" a businessman donating money to rebuild schools in Palestine is arrested for aiding a "terrorist" organization; environmental activists blockading a road into an old-growth forest to prevent the clear-cutting of ancient trees are imprisoned on "terrorist" charges. At the same time the US government routinely detains people without charge or trial, lines up its citizens and residents to be searched and scanned-in airports, of course, and increasingly at train stations, concerts, lectures, and office buildings-in the name of preventing "terrorism," and defends its own bad behavior-breaking international as well as domestic laws again and again-on the grounds that it is acting only to stop "terrorism." "Terrorists" are the vaguely-designated bad guys and the "evil-doers," and "terrorism" is whatever hazy enterprise the speaker disapproves of. The word is so freighted with fear and anxiety, so emotionally charged and politically loaded, that it lacks coherence and defies any straight-forward definition. But let's try anyway.
What is terrorism? Scholars and other experts have developed a consensus on a few common traits: terrorists have political, ideological or philosophical objectives, and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience much larger than their immediate victims. That's a hopeful beginning. But from here the experts and the government apologists become muddled and go completely off the tracks: terrorists are non-state actors - according to the US Congress and the State Department - which exempts Russia's assaults in Chechnya, Israel's relentless brutality in Gaza, and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause horror and alarm in order to advance a political or an ideological goal. The expert definition continues: terrorists target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don't take place on a field of battle. Now that's a convenient and self-justifying tautology, and it means that if any conventional government decides to pound a village to dust-the US obliterates Fallujah in Iraq to take one example-it's a field of battle; if a villager in Fallujah shoots at an American soldier in the exact same spot the day before the invasion officially commences, that's an act of terrorism. That is utterly absurd.
Terrorism, according to Webster's Dictionary, is "a mode of governing, or of opposing a government, by intimidation." This definition has the virtue of consistency and fairness; it focuses on the use of coercive violence, whether committed by a religious cult, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself. And by that definition the US is indeed a terrorist nation; it's also the greatest purveyor of violence on earth over the past half century, and the foremost threat to world peace today.
Q: You have personally known Barack Obama for quite a long time. You were neighbors in the same district, but you said that you haven't met with him since he ran for the presidency and was elected to the office. Which of his foreign policy approaches do you disagree with? Why did he intensify the campaign of drone strikes against Pakistan, Yemen and Somali after coming to power? Why did he repeatedly threaten Iran with "all options," including a military strike threat over its nuclear program several times?
A: I don't have any inside information about US intentions in Iran or elsewhere; I don't know from the standpoint of an insider why the administration has intensified drone strikes and built up its drone warfare program.
But from my perspective, the two establishment political parties in the US-the Democratic Party and Republican Party- are united in their commitment to US military supremacy and world domination. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he assumed the role of commander-in-chief of the largest military behemoth ever assembled on earth-he's been sitting on the throne of empire and commanding its violent legions ever since, exactly as every US president does. And I oppose it all, because when the American boot comes down, it brings neither freedom nor democracy nor peace nor human rights; it brings only violence and hatred and the chaos of war.
US imperialism is in decisive decline today as an economic and political power even as it is expanding as a ferocious and aggressive military power. This combination-decline and ascent-makes this a particularly unstable, dangerous, and urgent moment on the clock of the universe.
I oppose US imperialism in all its expressions and iterations-military intervention and occupation, economic aggression, and political or cultural manipulation. I think the US should immediately close all military bases and installations abroad, withdraw all troops on foreign soil including all mercenary fighters, end all military aid to Israel, and unilaterally decommission its nuclear arsenal. In all my efforts I work for more peace and more participatory democracy, more transparency and sustainability, more joy and more justice in large and small matters. I work toward a state of affairs in which the US might become a nation among nations-not the uber-nation that the ruling and political classes dream of and fight for.
Q: Is it really possible to resist American militarism and military aggressions and stop them through non-violent means, civil disobedience, raising public awareness using social media, mass demonstrations and other such methods? In advance of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Credo Action raised about $150,000 to fight against the Bush administration and the hawks in the Congress who were pushing for the war, but their efforts, as well as those of millions of Americans who took to the streets to voice their opposition to the occupation of Iraq, were ruined and bore no results. What's your viewpoint on that? Do such peaceful and civil methods of public protest work?
A: Yes, it's possible and necessary to resist US military aggressions, invasions, and occupations using many diverse means and methods including non-violent tactics, civil disobedience, raising public awareness using social media, mass demonstrations and so on. History has surprised us before, and it can surely surprise us again.
I'm not a tactician and I think tactical debates are often limiting and generally too abstract to be useful. Peace and justice activists need to dialogue and clarify where we stand ethically and politically; we need to keep our imaginations alive and agile; we need to organize and agitate and mobilize popular power even as we find ways to connect that power to customary politics; we need to recognize and unite all kinds of struggles for justice including clandestine subversion, underground movements, and expressions of infra-politics. But in our search for actions and efforts that will "bear results," even a casual glance at history urges us to remain flexible, improvisational, alert, tentative, uncertain, wide-awake, and experimental even as we act audaciously and decisively. There is no proven formula regarding "what works" when it comes to revolutionary or radical change, or even when we are fighting for social justice.
I disagree with your categorical statement that the world-wide mobilizations in March 2003-the largest peace demonstrations I'd ever participated in-"bore no results." If you mean that the popular agitation failed to stop an invasion that was already plotted and planned, already endorsed by the most belligerent controlling forces of the ruling class, and already underway in many ways, well, by that standard you are of course correct. But that's a pretty high bar for what constitutes "results." Some of the actual results of those actions were heightened awareness of the treachery of the US government, broader popular education about the true costs of war, and limiting the options of the war-makers. That all must count for something.
Many people argue today that Occupy "bore no results," and again I disagree. If the standard being imposed on Occupy activists is something like, "You set up tents on Wall Street and had community meetings, but capitalism survived," I think that's overly severe. Occupy created a public space where every grievance was heard and every aspiration expressed-it was not a panacea but an opening-and Occupy generated a powerful and enduring metaphor: the 1% and the 99%. Those are results to build on, not the last word but the latest utterance, and a prelude for the upheavals ahead.
During the heat of the 2008 election campaign, Senator Obama was asked which candidate he thought the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the great African-American freedom fighter who was assassinated in 1968, would likely support, and he responded without hesitation-Reverend King would not endorse any of us, Obama said, because King would be in the streets mobilizing an unstoppable movement for justice. That's exactly right, and it's a reminder that President Lyndon Johnson who had passed the most far-reaching civil rights legislation in the US since Reconstruction was never involved in the Black Freedom Movement but was instead responding to a powerful social movement for justice on the ground; that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never part of the labor movement but answered to a struggle on the ground for workers' dignity and a measure of economic justice; and that President Abraham Lincoln never belonged to an abolitionist party but could not ignore or hold back the wide-spread rebellion of enslaved people, and the noble, unstoppable movement from below.
Reality-in the form of non-violence at times, and armed resistance and armed rebellion at other times-forced upon Lincoln the opportunity to declare the freedom of an enslaved people, allowed Roosevelt to make a mark for social justice, and let Johnson do the right thing when it mattered. We who believe in freedom must always work to stoke those fires from below.
Q: In many of your writings and interviews, you termed President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq a "catastrophic decision" and a big mistake. Do you also think the same regarding the preceding war on Afghanistan that was a preface to the beginning of the US government's Global War on Terror? Do you agree with the premise that the war on Afghanistan paved the way for declaring an all-out war on the Muslims worldwide and demonizing them?
A: The US invasion and occupation was disastrous for the people of Afghanistan, and catastrophic for the people of the world, including the people of the US. The so-called War on Terror is a myth, but it's a fairy-tale with murderous consequences, and the perpetrator is the US government.
The attack of September 11, 2001 was a crime against humanity, and a crime always calls out for a criminal justice solution- evidence must be gathered, the perpetrator sought and captured and brought to trial, the exercise of due process of the law and then the meting out of punishment. But the US did none of this-its response was to declare war, and it would be a war like no other: there would be no identifiable adversary, no territorial boundaries, no clear goals or objectives, and no way of knowing if or how or when the war would end. A War on Terror would be a war on a tactic, or a war on an idea, or a war on a condition. And it would necessarily lead us to where we now are: the US engaged in permanent war, the "long war," and war without end.
I don't see this situation as an all-out war on Muslims worldwide, although it's true that the demonizing of Arabs and Muslims offers a convenient and manufactured scapegoat today to prop up the imperial dreams of the 1% as they orchestrate conquest and organize occupation around the globe. And it's also true that Arab and Muslim peoples are paying a high price right now for those fantasies. But this is a war for oil, for easy resources and cheap labor, and for markets, and dominance everywhere. In this war the US and Western powers have Arab allies as well as adversaries, but the field is shaky and the terrain unstable: the war could shift to Venezuela, China, Korea, or Chile at the drop of a pin.
Q: You have been constantly labeled a "terrorist" by the neo-conservative media and those who disfavor your promotional activities against the US military expeditions. Is it a conventional and common practice in the right-wing, conservative media to defame the critics of US foreign policy as "terrorists?" I read that you also received several death threats during and after the 2008 US presidential elections. Is that true?
A: As I said earlier, "terrorist" is one of those vague and convenient words to hurl at dissidents of all kinds in a wide range of circumstances. It's not constant, but neither is it uncommon.
At a rally during the 2008 presidential campaign, the Republican candidate for vice-president, Sarah Palin, referred to candidate Obama's relationship with me and accused him of "palling-around-with-terrorists" and the crowd chanted "Kill him!" It was unclear whether that chant was aimed at Barack Obama or me, or at both of us together!
It's true that I'd openly tried to make a revolution, that I had a dubious and hazardous history, and that I'd "committed detestable acts 40 years ago," as Barack Obama had put it. But I'd dealt with the legal problems associated with all the disorder decades before, and I'd publicly accounted for those dicey times in books and articles and interviews. I'd come under withering media attention and a sustained attack complete with death threats seven years earlier, and yet here I was in 2008, still standing, and still happily putting one foot in front of the other.
I was also still trying-with many, many others-to be conscious of and true to a challenge I'd first heard in my student days: Don't let your life make a mockery of your values. I didn't take that to mean that I could simply memorize a set of rules or make a list and carry it around in my back-pocket for a lifetime, sleep-walking step by dogmatic step free of the inconvenience of thinking about what I was doing, or rethinking anything I'd done. I took it to be a dynamic test and a living guide, something that I could never achieve nor fully satisfy once and for all, but rather a compass for a complicated world, a standard to be reached for, something to be worked out again and again in the messy process of living.
I got a call on my cell phone from our city council person. "I'm sure you've seen the 'Kill him!' videos," she began. "I'm really sorry about all this mess." She had talked to Mayor Daley, she said, as well as the police commander in our neighborhood. "Everyone agrees that you should have a little enhanced protection, and with your permission, the Chicago police and the university force will assign patrols to your house." They felt a little prudence could go a long way. I don't take any of it seriously, I said, and I don't intend to hide out in my own house.
Actually our street was already pretty snug and sure: beyond Jesse Jackson and Operation Push, beyond the University of Chicago police, the largest private force in the country, and beyond Minister Louis Farrakhan and his elite Fruit of Islam security force-young men with crisp white shirts, skinny bow ties, and close-cropped hair hovering nearby-the Secret Service was just then creating a Green Zone at the Obama residence around the corner. Still the folks chanting "Kill him!" looked a little dazed, the threats were reaching a fever pitch, and what would it take after all to unhinge just one of them?
I still have several faithful haters-guys habitually weighing-in on my website or email, occasionally even sending snail mail to our home-who are as familiar to me as an old pair of sweat socks. "Jack Janski" is always close at hand and his recent comments are typical of our long association: "We're watching you. We know exactly what you are up to and guess what? We ain't gonna let it happen;" "Hell is too good for you anti-American skunks."
"Mike Adams" has written me several times to tell me, for example, that I am "a filthy sub-human terrorist pig," but later noting that "that was a very mean and un-Christian thing to say-even to a terrorist sociopath."
I pictured him sitting in his mom's overheated basement fueling up on rum and Coke and fast food, a collision of cigarette butts mingling in a big glass ash-tray, dressed in boxers and a stained T-shirt hunched over a laptop in his worn out easy chair, sending frenzied messages out to all manner of imagined enemies. Because I saw him in my mind's eye as a harmless escapist unable to actually muster the energy to exit the cellar for fear of tangible human contact, I figured he was no threat whatsoever.
There were others, though, who were worrisome to me and not at all funny, partly for what they said but also because they visited only once, expressed their excessive rage, and retreated quickly to the shadows: John D. Levin-"I hope and pray that I will read soon that you were found murdered, dismembered, and had been horribly tortured for days before your slow, painful death. God bless anyone who does it to you;" FBA-"I hope somebody puts a bullet through your head you leftist;" redwingsfan51-"You should have been executed for treason a long time ago;" Sniper-"Watch your back! Your time is coming!" See what I mean? Sniper sent that letter to our home postmarked Sacramento, California and bearing a recent photo of our front door. Yipes!
And one morning a man my own age walked into my office at the university and told me in a trembling voice that I deserved to die. He was sweating and red-faced, his veins popping in his neck and forehead. I was shaken but managed to swallow hard and get my own voice steadied enough to ask him if he was threatening me, and when he said no, I asked him to please leave. He refused, and so I shifted direction and invited him to sit down; once in a chair he became visibly calmer and looked harmless enough. I was cooler too, and I told him evenly that I was going to call the police. He raised his voice and turned a deeper red, "Don't you mean the pigs?" I said he could call them whatever he liked, but to me, in this situation, I'd just call them the police. We chatted for several minutes until the cops arrived. I didn't want to press any charges, and the police gave him a warning and escorted him off campus.
Q: How much is the cost of being a political dissident in the United States? Does the ruling system tolerate dissidents and critics whose viewpoints on critical domestic and foreign policy issues differ from the mainstream pundits and pro-government public speakers, journalists and authors? Aside from the dangerous death threats which you received, and explained above, what price have you paid for having viewpoints which are not consistent with the customary and conventional American mentality, that is to support the government in its every endeavor and refrain from criticizing or opposing it?
A: The cost of dissent varies-and like all things American it must be calculated along lines of race and class and background. African-American freedom fighters have been murdered and arrested and jailed in huge numbers; Black youth are victims of serial police shootings; poor people are subject to constant surveillance and routine harassment.
Since 9/11, Palestinians in the US have borne a heavy burden. Speaking out against US policy and Israeli violence has led to arrest (the Irvine 11; Sami Alarin) and loss of employment (Steven Salaita), persecution and deportation (Muhammad Salah; Rasmea Odeh).
I have no idea how to determine the price I've paid personally, and I'm not going to try. I have chosen to fight for peace and joy and justice, and to live my life in opposition to empire, war, and white supremacy. Of course I've been arrested and jailed, beaten and shunned, attacked and demeaned, but so what? I've been incredibly fortunate to have a brilliant and committed love, life partner who has shared that journey, children and grandchildren who light up the world, and important work to do.
Q: A number of political commentators argue that the US government has launched a systematic campaign against its own citizens under the guise of fighting terrorism. The extrajudicial rights and powers which have been entrusted to the US President that enable him to order the detention of any US citizen or resident, including legal migrants, without due trial, which is also a violation of the writ of habeas corpus, is a case in point. Has this trend emerged following the 9/11? Why do you think the US government and security, intelligence apparatus are behaving this way?
A: Yes, this is one of the lasting legacies of 9/11; and, yes, the US state, like other states and governments, fears imagination and initiative and courage, and is particularly frightened of its own people; it wants nothing more than a compliant, mindless, sheep-like, meek, submissive, subservient, passive, conventional, amenable, docile, and deferential citizenry, and it works tirelessly to promote obedience and conformity in large and small matters.
Q: With around five percent of the world's population, the United States holds 25% of its prisoners. Many of these prisoners are kept in custody under terrorism-related charges, while these charges have never been substantiated or proved. The torture methods used against some of these prisoners, as leaked by Wikileaks and other whistleblowers, are extremely brutal and unjustifiable. Have you read such reports? What's your perspective on the conditions of the prisoners held in the US jails and the reasons for which they were incarcerated?
A: Yes. The US has become a prison nation, marked indelibly as a carceral state with mass incarceration the defining fact of life today - whether acknowledged or not, just as slavery was the fundamental reality in the US 1800's, whether acknowledged or not. The deep-seated reason underneath the phenomenon of mass incarceration is white supremacy dressed-up in modern garb, structural racism pure and simple. The system has been dubbed "the new Jim Crow" by the brilliant lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander who points out that there are now more Black men in prison or on probation or parole in the US now than there were living in bondage as chattel slaves in 1850; that there are significantly more people caught up in the system of incarceration and supervision in America today-over six million folks-than inhabited Stalin's Gulag at its height, and that the American Gulag is the second largest city by population in this country; that in the past 20 years the amount states have spent on prisons has risen six times the rate spent on higher education; and that on any given day tens of thousands of men, overwhelmingly Black and Latino men, are held in the torturous condition known as solitary confinement.
And torture is widely documented not just in Guantanamo Bay, but throughout the US. In Chicago, a case of systematic police torture over decades has resulted in several exonerations and settlements with victims, but no real justice as the perpetrators have not been held to account.
Masses of people in the US are living in cages, confined spaces that lock from the outside and where people are closed off and stuck, places characterized by high rates of physical and sexual violence. And the experience of caging itself is innately destructive and violent.
To give you a feel for what I'm saying, let me describe the last time I visited a friend-a young African-American man-in jail. The visiting area was miserable: a dark and narrow hallway with maybe 15 of us visitors evenly distributed on our side of the impenetrable glass and concrete wall, waiting. We'd inched along the slow-snaking roped-off security line; we'd been run through metal detectors and then patted down; we'd been identity-checked and hand-stamped; we'd been ordered about, checked off, and registered; some of us had even been scolded by the turn-keys for our choice of pants or top and been banished, told to come back wearing "appropriate" clothing. After all that I thought for sure we'd be meeting in a big room seated at tables across from our friends or loved ones. No such thing: my friend and the other cuffed and chained Black men shuffled in and took seats on their side of the barrier, straining to be seen and heard. The stench of the slave market was everywhere.
With millions of our fellow citizens living in cages and vanishing behind walls, a host of social problems and challenges are buried but not faced, and surely not solved. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, failing schools, homelessness, inadequate health care, substance abuse and addiction, mental illness-these are all within our power to answer, but only when we are willing to take an essential first step: opening our eyes and making an honest accounting of the human costs and the human possibilities before us.
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
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