Week after week Sean Hannity of Fox News pounds away at Barack Obama for his Bill Ayers connection. For a while, so did Sarah Palin and John McCain.  An unrepentant terrorist is what Hannity calls Bill Ayers.  Others call Mr. Ayers an anti-war activist.  In the late 1960s and early ’70s Ayers led his militant group called Weather Underground in a bombing campaign against the U.S. government. 

His organization bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol building and New York City police headquarters protesting the Vietnam War.  

An incendiary man, Ayers was an educator before he became a radical. Eventually he turned himself in and probably would have been put away but for prosecutorial misconduct. He now lives and works in Chicago.  He is considered a model citizen, his educational work with juvenile offenders receiving high praise from fellow professors at the University of Chicago. 

What rankles conservatives about him is his lack of remorse for his unpunished past, and what provokes  liberals to rise to his defense is his present, highlighted by his intellectualism and his professorial dissertations. Ironically, one day before 9/11, Bill Ayers’ account of his life in the Weather Underground, “Fugitive Days: A Memoir,” was published. In an interview with a New York Times reporter about the book, Ayers is alleged to have stated, “I don’t regret setting bombs,” “We didn’t do enough,” and about the question of whether he would resort to terrorist tactics again he said: “I wouldn’t discount the possibility.” After 9/11 Ayers condemned all brands of terrorism, but he defended his own brand as hardly terrorism when compared with the random acts of violence committed by the American government in Vietnam.

In 2005 I met a  man similar to Ayers on Robben Island in South Africa. He was a tour guide who took visitors across the sacrosanct precincts where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress activists had been held prisoner during the dark days of apartheid. This man told the tourists in a matter of fact manner that he had worked in the terrorist wing of the ANC. This was after 9/11, and I clearly remember the Americans in the crowd bristling during his impassive account of his life in hiding in Mozambique as an ANC guerrilla and his bombing activity at the height of the ANC insurgency. The man said he was captured by the South African government eventually and imprisoned on Robben Island, charged with sedition. 

The Americans wouldn’t let the man be. They wanted to know if he ever had sleepless nights about his bombing, if he thought what he had done was right and if he would commit the same deed again.  Like Ayers, the man was not sorry for what he did.  He explained that he followed orders to achieve a higher cause, he obeyed his conscience, and his final goal of defeat for the apartheid regime diminished all other concerns and vindicated him.  Dissatisfied, the crowd preached to him about Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the success of nonviolent tactics and how no cause is great enough to sacrifice innocent lives.  The man simply smiled and finished his tour as calmly as he had started.

The fact is this: To the ANC, this tour guide would always be a hero whose past violence should be interpreted against the context of the greater evil of apartheid and whose work on Robben Island has redeemed him. To white Afrikaners from the apartheid era, the tour guide would always be a terrorist. Same with Ayers. To the contemporaries of Ayers from the American left, he would always be an intellectual whose past violence should be judged against the greater evil of the Vietnam War and even if he does not apologize openly, he has redeemed himself through his educational efforts. To the American right, on the other hand, those who believe that the Vietnam War was lost due to the strident protests of liberals, Bill Ayers will always be a terrorist.   

Outside this contention there is Obama, a natural politician, an opportunist looking in. Quintessentially American in his competitiveness, he calculates what the odds are in any situation to advance himself. To him the Vietnam War is no more than a history lesson and Bill Ayers no more than another voter redeemed by virtue of pledging to support Barack Obama! Whether this is Obama’s sin is in the eye of the beholder.

Usha Nellore is a writer living in Bel Air. Reach her at unellu@gmail.com.