You can learn a lot about a person's agenda by looking at the terms they use to describe others.
I first learned this many years ago from my friend and radio talk show host Dennis Prager. He was cynically amused at the fact that Rodney King--a car thief with a criminal past who violently resisted arrest by four Los Angeles police officers before they subdued him and beat him to a pulp--was always referred to as "motorist" or "black motorist" Rodney King by the news media covering the story. Dennis accurately pointed out that the media wanted to focus on the police brutality in the case so they came up with a term that essentially ignored everything about King that might distract attention from the point they wanted to make.
I was reminded of this in recent weeks as the McCain campaign and the water carriers on the Right (including Prager himself) have honed in on Barack Obama's relationship with "unrepentant terrorist" William Ayers. I am cynically amused for a number of reasons.
First, Dr. Ayers probably doesn't have that title on his business card. He is a few other things that are perhaps more currently relevant. He is a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He has been such an important force in improving the Chicago public schools that he has been effusively praised by Mayor Richard Daley and was also named Chicago Citizen of the Year in 1997--the year held a fundraiser for Obama.
On top of that, it could be argued that he is neither unrepentant nor a terrorist.
For guidance on the first point, I refer as usual to my religious tradition. Last week, Jews around the world observed Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement. On that holiest day of the year we are commanded to repent for our sins against God and other people and commit ourselves to do better during the coming year.
In our tradition, the way we determine true repentance is not by what we say but rather by how we behave going forward. One of the values I like best about Judaism is its focus on actions. Doing the right thing means everything. Saying the right thing means nothing. If you talk the talk, you get no credit unless you walk the walk.
Years ago a wise Jewish commentator said true repentance is having the opportunity to commit the same sin over again but resisting that temptation and doing the right thing instead.
By that standard, Ayers has fully repented for whatever sins he might have committed 40 years ago. After his run-in with the law while protesting the Vietnam War, he has gone on to dedicate himself to teaching and making Chicago and its education system a better place for tens of thousands of students and families. As far as I know, he was never convicted of a crime during his Weather Underground days and has been totally law abiding ever since.
Although I was familiar with Ayers since I too worked and spoke out against the Vietnam War 40 years ago, I never heard the term "terrorist" applied to him or anyone else who opposed the war until this campaign season.
My dictionary defines a terrorist as someone who "uses violence or threats to intimidate or create a state of fear and submission."
While the activities of the Weathermen were clearly illegal and in some cases violent, they were a targeted response against the U.S. government. They were never designed to instill fear--they were designed to hamper the U.S. government's effort to prosecute the war. By no definition were those actions ever considered terrorism and even though most Americans (including me) felt they were wrong,over the line, and illegal no one ever called them acts of terror--until McCain came along.
In addition, even McCain supporters concede that Obama and Ayers have never been close and that the two men have essentially had no relationship at all over the last ten years.
One of the presidential candidates HAS been palling around with unrepentant terrorists very recently but it's not Barack Obama. That candidate is John McCain and the terrorists are his running mate and his increasingly angry and desperate supporters on Fox News and the radio.
Sarah Palin and her broadcast partners in crime have been spending virtually all their time trying to intimidate, coerce, and create a state of fear and submission among U.S. voters. Although John McCain has tried to stay above the fray by trying to calm down his most rabid fans at a recent rally, the very reason his supporters are screaming for blood--literally--is because they are being whipped into vengeful frenzy by the terrorists of the Right.
During the last couple of months, McCain has called Obama a traitor who's willing to lose a war for political gain, said Obama pals around with terrorists, that Obama has blown off the troops in Germany due to lack of press coverage, that Obama wants to raise taxes, that Obama lies, that Obama has sold his soul to Fannie Mae, and that he's not "like us." These are all points designed to cast serious doubts on Obama's character and fitness to serve. According to McCain's actions, we should all be very afraid of an Obama presidency.
Palin doesn't even pretend to be repentant. When Rush Limbaugh asked her if she was going to stay on the attack, she replied "Of course I will--what do I have to lose?" The fact that the inflammatory rhetotic used by her and the people who introduce her at rallies have prompted screams of "traitor," "terrorist," and "kill him (Obama)" doesn't seem to bother her.
All of these developments are sad and somewhat predictable. Fortunately they are also irrelevant since the duration of this campaign and new technology have enabled voters to view speeches and articles on demand. Most voters will make up their own minds about the candidates based on hearing and seeing them live and in action.
It is also encouraging that most Americans are clearly not giving in to the terrorists and seem to understand exactly what is going on. Since the McCain campaign promised and delivered on their stepped-up smear campaign two weeks ago, his popularity and poll numbers have dropped like a rock and his negative ratings have been soaring. The campaign is over, Obama has won, and we need to move on as a country. If anyone doubts that assessment and wants to bet on McCain, they can get better than 6-1 odds on Intrade
Still, it's ironic and disappointing that the McCain campaign can continue to stand the truth on its head and go unchallenged by the media. Fortunately, they are being challenged by the voters who know a terrorist when they see one and certainly recognize people who are unrepentant for their sins.