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Eye on the News

John M. Murtagh
Fire in the Night
The Weathermen tried to kill my family.
30 April 2008

Selected Responses:

Sent by Cindy Clites on 05-01-2008:

Very thought provoking. We never hear about the "other side" of the impact these self-imposed messiahs create at the cost of the innocent. This was NEVER a justified movement, and frankly Ayers pouts like a kid brought up in privilege. The bombings sound like grown-up tantrums, and an inability to deal with things when they did not get what they want. I can't believe Ayers and his associates were ever let back into society with the same callous regard that put them in prison in the first place. My heart goes out to the Murtagh family.

Sent by Wray Johnson on 04-30-2008:

This essay should be required reading for Obama and everyone who supports him.

Sent by Gerald Parshall on 04-30-2008:

Mr. Murtagh's deep disdain for William Ayers is perfectly understandable. What is NOT understandable is what it has to do with Barack Obama, who was eight years old when Ayers set his bombs. Ayers is a professor of education and is widely respected, like it or not, in the Hyde Park neighborhood he and Obama share. It would be remarkable if Obama, who represented the area in the Illinois Senate, did NOT know Ayers.

Is this the rule, now, for blacks who are uppity enough to run for president: They are to be held accountable for everything ever done by anyone whose path they have crossed? Will Mr. Murtagh agree to be judged by the actions of everyone he has represented as a lawyer?

Sent by Marie Burns on 04-30-2008:

While I have deep sympathy for Murtagh & his family's ordeal, there is no reason whatsoever for Obama to apologize for the acts of some horrible criminals who knew a neighbor of his. What boggles the mind is why Murtagh isn't complaining about Bill Clinton's commuting the sentences of Weathermen who were involved in the murder of New York policemen, a commutation he granted while his wife was a sitting New Yor Senator.

Sent by Gail on 04-30-2008:

I have a problem with guilt by association; and with the fact that Obama had nothing to do with Ayers's activities, and nothing to do with his past life.

Do you also have a problem with the fact that Hillary worked for a law firm that defended Black Panthers and whose husband pardoned other Weathermen? Or with John McCain's associations with neo-cons or with a pastor who believes the World Trade Center was attacked due to the godliness of this city? Maybe we should judge candidates for president on what they themselves stand for, what they themselves have done in their lives, what they themselves show us as they debate and campaing, and not ask them to pay for the sins of others merely because they come into contact.

Sent by Patricia Waske on 04-30-2008:

This was a wonderful account of the horror and terror inflicted on you and your family. Thank you for sharing your story. I am sharing this website with my friends. Americans need to be reminded about the damage William Ayers and the Weathermen perpetrated against innocent people. God bless you and your family, sir.

During the April 16 debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, moderator George Stephanopoulos brought up “a gentleman named William Ayers,” who “was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that.” Stephanopoulos then asked Obama to explain his relationship with Ayers. Obama’s answer: “The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was eight years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn’t make much sense, George.” Obama was indeed only eight in early 1970. I was only nine then, the year Ayers’s Weathermen tried to murder me.

In February 1970, my father, a New York State Supreme Court justice, was presiding over the trial of the so-called “Panther 21,” members of the Black Panther Party indicted in a plot to bomb New York landmarks and department stores. Early on the morning of February 21, as my family slept, three gasoline-filled firebombs exploded at our home on the northern tip of Manhattan, two at the front door and the third tucked neatly under the gas tank of the family car. (Today, of course, we’d call that a car bomb.) A neighbor heard the first two blasts and, with the remains of a snowman I had built a few days earlier, managed to douse the flames beneath the car. That was an act whose courage I fully appreciated only as an adult, an act that doubtless saved multiple lives that night.

I still recall, as though it were a dream, thinking that someone was lifting and dropping my bed as the explosions jolted me awake, and I remember my mother’s pulling me from the tangle of sheets and running to the kitchen where my father stood. Through the large windows overlooking the yard, all we could see was the bright glow of flames below. We didn’t leave our burning house for fear of who might be waiting outside. The same night, bombs were thrown at a police car in Manhattan and two military recruiting stations in Brooklyn. Sunlight, the next morning, revealed three sentences of blood-red graffiti on our sidewalk: FREE THE PANTHER 21; THE VIET CONG HAVE WON; KILL THE PIGS.

For the next 18 months, I went to school in an unmarked police car. My mother, a schoolteacher, had plainclothes detectives waiting in the faculty lounge all day. My brother saved a few bucks because he didn’t have to rent a limo for the senior prom: the NYPD did the driving. We all made the best of the odd new life that had been thrust upon us, but for years, the sound of a fire truck’s siren made my stomach knot and my heart race. In many ways, the enormity of the attempt to kill my entire family didn’t fully hit me until years later, when, a father myself, I was tucking my own nine-year-old John Murtagh into bed.

Though no one was ever caught or tried for the attempt on my family’s life, there was never any doubt who was behind it. Only a few weeks after the attack, the New York contingent of the Weathermen blew themselves up making more bombs in a Greenwich Village townhouse. The same cell had bombed my house, writes Ron Jacobs in The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. And in late November that year, a letter to the Associated Press signed by Bernardine Dohrn, Ayers’s wife, promised more bombings.

As the association between Obama and Ayers came to light, it would have helped the senator a little if his friend had at least shown some remorse. But listen to Ayers interviewed in the New York Times on September 11, 2001, of all days: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Translation: “We meant to kill that judge and his family, not just damage the porch.” When asked by the Times if he would do it all again, Ayers responded: “I don’t want to discount the possibility.”

Though never a supporter of Obama, I admired him for a time for his ability to engage our imaginations, and especially for his ability to inspire the young once again to embrace the political system. Yet his myopia in the last few months has cast a new light on his “politics of change.” Nobody should hold the junior senator from Illinois responsible for his friends’ and supporters’ violent terrorist acts. But it is fair to hold him responsible for a startling lack of judgment in his choice of mentors, associates, and friends, and for showing a callous disregard for the lives they damaged and the hatred they have demonstrated for this country. It is fair, too, to ask what those choices say about Obama’s own beliefs, his philosophy, and the direction he would take our nation.

At the conclusion of his 2001 Times interview, Ayers said of his upbringing and subsequent radicalization: “I was a child of privilege and I woke up to a world on fire.”

Funny thing, Bill: one night, so did I.

John M. Murtagh is a practicing attorney, an adjunct professor of public policy at the Fordham University College of Liberal Studies, and a member of the city council in Yonkers, New York, where he resides with his wife and two sons.

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