Why was William Ayers turned back at the border?

A bad decision—but the former terrorist isn’t exactly an innocent victim


As reported earlier today (including here), U.S. education professor William Ayers, who was to give a speech in Toronto, has been denied entry to Canada. As our own blogger (and Memorial University education professor) Dale Kirby points out, the decision by Canada Border Services Agency to turn Ayers back at the border is “ridiculous.” Ayers, who is old enough to enjoy the seniors discount and is a professor of education at a major U.S. university, is no threat to the peace and security of Canada. The man may have a violent past—he first career was as a terrorist, as well get into in a moment—but the only bombs he’s coming to Canada to throw are rhetorical. He should of course be let across the border to give his lecture on education policy, or whatever else he wants to talk about.

But it’s worth remembering, before we run off and canonize Ayers as a martyr for the cause of free speech, that the man used to be a real-life bomb thrower. He used to be a terrorist. That fact is not unconnected to why he was denied access to Canada. He used to be one of America’s most wanted men. He was a founder of the Weather Underground, an organization of well-to-do radicals who planned and committed bombings, robberies and murders in the 1970s; he was once a fugitive from justice; he was a close associate of people given life sentences for their part in the murder of police officers. Ayers was involved in bombing both the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. (Due to prosecutorial misconduct back in the ’70s, the most serious charges against him were dropped; the same was not the case for many of his associates). Some may find his record romantic; the audience for his Toronto event, when it eventually takes place, will likely be primarily made up of such people. The people he and his friends robbed, assaulted and killed surely have other ideas. (But they, alas, don’t have Ph.Ds).

The Weather Underground were, fortunately, almost as good at accidentally blowing themselves up as killing cops, soldiers and capitalists; in 1970, three members of the Underground, including Ayers’ girlfriend, blew themselves up while assembling a nail bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse. They were apparently planning to attack a soldier’s dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Ayers, who went on to become an education professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has never exactly disowned this past, instead offering half-baked regrets and evasive excuses for the activities of the Weather Underground, including claiming that they weren’t terrorists because they attacked symbols and property, not people. And even that isn’t entirely true: in his autobiography, Ayers admits involvement in robbings and muggings (to fund the Weathermen’s activities). Though as Slate magazine’s review of Fugitive Days noted, “Ayers reminds his readers that he’s had to omit or change many facts throughout his narrative because they describe actions on his part that are, well, illegal.” The pages and pages of evasions left the reviewer wondering “if he’s ever read a memoir quite so self-indulgent and morally clueless.”

You get a sense of why the Republican party worked so hard last year to link Ayers to Barack Obama: Ayers not only symbolizes a nightmarish era in American history, he was one of its primary causes. The giddy rage and lust for blood in the streets that fringe groups like the Weathermen represented was understandably terrifying to most Americans; Americans wanted the Vietnam war to end, they didn’t want an outbreak of murderous chaos at home. Fear and backlash against the chaos were instrumental in Richard Nixon winning two electoral landslides. (The revolutionaries were scarier than Nixon. Much scarier. If you want to get a flavour of what it was like to live in that time, as the world was falling apart and the proudly insane were having a run at taking over, read this novel.)

Should Ayers be allowed to speak in Toronto? Of course. It might be fascinating. I hope he will address his past. Even if he doesn’t, I want to hear him. Ideas are no threat to Canada.

There is a good argument to be made that, like his associates Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, Ayers once upon a time deserved a long spell behind bars. (Gilbert remains in prison for the murder of a Brinks guard and two police officers in 1981; Boudin was convicted of the same and paroled in 2003.) But that was a matter for the U.S. justice system, and it never successfully prosecuted him. For all I know, all these years later, he may even have some worthwhile educational ideas. He’s no threat, not anymore. But he’s no hero. Not then, not now.

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Why was William Ayers turned back at the border?

  1. Further on this:

    1) I’m not sure how the “hero” narrative crept in here. My own point centers on the troublesome fact that Canada’s boarder patrol agency believes it is appropriate to bar the entry of American academics to Canada without providing a reason (or for reasons that appear reflect the policies of the Bush Administration for that matter).

    2) Ayers’ first career was as a student and anti-war activist.

    3) Here’s a clip of Ayers appearing on HARDBALL with Chris Matthews before xmas.

  2. A “bad decision” is an illegal decision. A good decision is a legal one. Customs is required to make decisions about entry in conformance with the law. You said the decision to refuse entry to Ayers was a “bad” decision. You gave no facts about the relevant law to support your suggestion that Customs failed to correctly apply the law.
    Marnie Tunay Fakirs Canada

  3. This is oddly similar to what happened two years ago when Bobby Seale (founder of the Black Panthers) was denied access in Canada and couldn’t give a public lecture at the University of Ottawa:

    Considering that he had been allowed to enter Canada multiple times since the 60s, that he’s also a senior now, is working on youth education programs and has even released a BBQ recipe book, you have to wonder what new “threat” the Canadian officials have seen.

  4. Marnie, you should have read my whole article. I said that the decision to bar Ayers from Canada was a bad decision — full stop. He should of course be allowed to enter Canada. The guy did a lot of entirely wrong-headed and illegal things in his life, which people would do well to remember. But he’s no threat to Canada and there’s no reason to think he’s going to break the law when he comes up here. I can’t see any reason he shouldn’t be allowed to come to Canada.

    Dale, with all respect, Ayers was not just a “student and anti-war activist”. That makes it sound like he spent the late 1960s carrying placards, handing out flyers, playing Joan Baez records and singing kumbaya. Ayers and his organization were the antithesis of that peaceful approach to social change; they broke with less radical student organizations and turned to violence. He advocated violence. He practiced violence. He blew things up. He founded an organization that killed people. Much of it is there in the wikipedia entry you linked to. He and the Weatherman Group were, by any normal definition, terrorists. They were not particularly effective terrorists, and they had few followers, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.

    He may be a very different man today. A lot of water is under the bridge. That’s why there’s no reason to keep him out of Canada. If anything, we should welcome him; it shows how even formerly dangerous wackos can sometimes grow up to be mild-mannered university professors. I kind of like that story.

    But I’m willing to bet that, if you attend the Ayers event in Toronto, which I assume will eventually take place, you will be part of an audience composed of many people who see the story quite differently. They will be proudly sporting the sartorial symbols of affection for various global revolutionary causes, and if you talk to them, they will make it clear that they are there for Bill Ayers because he and his friends once upon a time rejected namby-pamby, weak-kneed social democracy and its disappointing niceties of arriving at governmental decisions through peaceful and democratic means, and instead turned to what is euphemistically called “direct action” against capitalism, imperialism and America. I know you don’t share those views. But if we get to finally have an Ayers talk in Toronto, I’ll be very curious to see how many do.

  5. I think we are generally on the same page, Tony.

    The violence that was practiced by the Weather Underground was/is abhorrent. I also agree that his apparent unrepentance for past acts of violence is problematic.

    To clarify, my earlier point was that Ayers started out as a student and anti-war activist. That was before the Weathermen began to act out the doomed and deranged idea that further violence is an effective means of ending violence.

  6. Re: “Marnie, you should have read my whole article. I said that the decision to bar Ayers from Canada was a bad decision — full stop. He should of course be allowed to enter Canada. The guy did a lot of entirely wrong-headed and illegal things in his life, which people would do well to remember. But he’s no threat to Canada and there’s no reason to think he’s going to break the law when he comes up here. I can’t see any reason he shouldn’t be allowed to come to Canada.”
    I did read your whole article. And the fact that you “can’t see” any reason he shouldn’t be allowed to come to Canada is irrelevant to the decision you are impugning: which is the decision by Customs not to let him in. You haven’t talked about the basis on which he was refused entry. You haven’t talked about the legal factors relevant to the question of whether or not a man who admittedly has a record of violence and terrorism should be allowed to come in notwithstanding his record. If you don’t want to be bothered addressing the facts relevant to the objective merits of the decision to bar him and you just want to voice your opinion – then, in my opinion, you could have saved me the trouble of bothering to reply to your blog by saying the truth: In your opinion, the decision to bar him is a bad one; and you don’t really want to be bothered to justify your slam on Customs with anything as tiresome as the relevant law and the facts. See, if you had just said that in the first place, then I would have ignored your blog entirely, today and forever; and we wouldn’t have both wasted our time on this exchange.

  7. He didn’t talk about the basis on which he was refused entry because the CBSA DIDN’T TELL US WHY! After letting him in repeatedly and without question for the past twenty years, they decided on January 18th, 2009, that he was dangerous. It’s as absurd as it sounds.

    So, what is the difference between Ayers in 2007 and Ayers in 2009? A disgusting slander campaign by a loser presidential candidate. It’s disconcerting that our border services participated–and engaged–in such childish gossiping.

    And, in the original article, Keller says: “he was a close associate of people given life sentences for their part in the murder of police officers.” The phrasing of that sentence is unfair. When the police officers in question were murdered, Ayers had already quit the group and turned himself in. He should not be associated with that incident at all.