Advice and dissent

Voices from the new political wilderness three years after the terrorist attacks

If one thing has been made clear since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and through the recent Democratic and Republican national conventions, it’s that the average American doesn’t really stand much of a chance of figuring out what’s going on in this country, or even who’s telling the truth most of the time.

For many Americans, the political dialogue offered by the Bush administration and Democratic challenger John Kerry, who sometimes speaks against the war in Iraq but wants 40,000 more troops to fight it, has left truly important questions of our national character unanswered.

And those questions all seem to wind back to one event: 9/11.

“We know that September 11 requires our country to think differently,” said President George W. Bush during his hour-long, nomination-acceptance speech last Thursday.

During that speech, he made frequent reference to the events of 9/11 and described himself heeding the call of a Twin Towers rescue worker asking him to do “whatever it takes” to root out terrorism.

The war on terror is working, he argued, with America “liberating millions with acts of valor that could have made the men of Normandy proud.”

But, for many, the world continues to be a darker, scarier place since the 9/11 tragedies, with no clear or obtainable military or political solutions coming from either of the men who will be president for the next four years.

Right now, the language of America—whether the “nothing will hold us back” zealousness of the Bush crowd in New York or the cautious near-uncertainty of the Kerry camp in Boston—is war.

The following is a collection of opinionated statements by an eclectic group of activists, authors, writers and experts who can’t help thinking a little harder about things. We asked what questions they feel Americans should be asking themselves and their leaders in these times, and if an end to the war on terror is at all in sight.

It’s a difficult dialogue to have, notes actor John C. Reilly, because of all the emotions, many of them valid, surrounding these issues. Syndicated columnist Robert Scheer, Iraq peace traveler Kathy Kelly and international terrorism expert Richard Dekmejian are troubled by a lack of dialogue about the root causes of terrorism, and fear America’s foreign policies will only create more of it.

Richard Dekmejian

Others, like TV sex therapist Dr. Susan Block, may sound a bit off topic at first but essentially are asking very personal questions about the way civilized people should behave in the face of uncivilized evil.

Sadly, some, such as noted Chicano novelist and Columbia University Professor Helena Maria Viramontes, have concluded that many of our political leaders need only hold a mirror to themselves to root out perpetrators of terror.

Michael Badnarik
Libertarian presidential candidate

Because terrorism is an abstraction, it could last forever. That’s a danger we have.

The real question is: Do we make ourselves safer by blowing up buildings and killing civilians in countries where they already hate us?

I think that although we may kill terrorists when we bomb buildings, every time we do that, we generate 50 more. The analogy I use is if you have a hornet’s nest on the corner of your property, there’s some small but finite possibility you might be stung. If you run down there with a baseball bat, you might kill a dozen, but your probability of being stung increases dramatically.

As president of the United States, I would give instructions to our military leaders to bring our sons and daughters home as quickly and as safely as possible. I want to publicly challenge George Bush and John Kerry to allow me into the debate to discuss these very issues. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Ralph McKnight
Former chair of the Rainbow Coalition Caucus of the California Democratic Party

You caught me at a curious time politically. I am disgusted with the Democratic Party. I cannot understand, with the dismal record of Bush—almost 1,000 soldiers dead in a war based on lies, over 6,000 seriously wounded and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, and an economy going to spike in upward of 90 degrees to almost a trillion-dollar deficit—I don’t understand why the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, hasn’t emphasized these points.

Robert Scheer

We destroyed every viable relationship we ever had with our various allies. We are paying the entire cost of the armies of the so-called coalition of the willing and the costs of the newly installed Iraqi government. We still have schools here that need repair and supplies, a health system in disrepair, hospitals and clinics closing on a daily basis and all kinds of other problems that will take us over the edge.

I am thoroughly disgusted by the Bush administration—that goes without saying—but I am also very dismayed by the poor showing of the Democrats.

If Kerry does lose, a lot of Democrats are going to find some ways to put together a new third party. The two-party system is not serving us. It’s been totally ineffective, irresponsible and unresponsive to the needs of the citizens of the United States. We need change immediately. We need a candidate and a party that is progressive, aggressive and responsive. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Richard Dekmejian
International terrorism expert and University of Southern California professor

The number of potential terrorists has dramatically increased around the world because of the Iraq war and because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the unresolved situation in Afghanistan, and generally our policies inadvertently cause continuing increases of potential terrorists rather than reducing them.

We’re in a rivalry, or contention, with Al Qaeda and similar types of organizations for the Islamic mainstream, and we’re losing that competition.

Measures have reduced the possibility of an attack on the mainland—not eliminated, but reduced. We’ve taken proactive measures. Terrorists, in terms of rational assessment, probably understand that it’s much more costly and difficult to attack the mainland, much more rational to attack Americans throughout the world because we’re much more vulnerable there. There could be some symbolic act against a target in the American mainland, of course, but I think more likely are attacks on American forces and targets throughout the world. …

[On warnings against our preemptive military policy]: The administration wasn’t interested; the mainstream media was not interested. I think that warning has come true. Saddam is a nasty guy, but he never did terrorism against the United States and never had anything to do with Al Qaeda or any Islamic group. The 9/11 reports have brought that out very clearly.

There are very strong anti-American opinions across the world; that’s especially in the Islamic world and among its mainstream. That kind of alienation, of course, doesn’t mean all those people will become terrorists. But some who are alienated and wronged enough, those with the sense of being wronged enough, gravitate toward terrorist organizations. For the number we kill, many more are being manufactured. The way we’re going, that’s likely to continue.

Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict—speaking the truth, because professors are supposed to be in the truth business, these are the triggers. No one is dealing with that. And we’ve added to our foreign-policy mistakes. We’re not beloved by the people in the streets, and that’s where terrorists come from. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Kathy Kelly

Robert Scheer
Nationally syndicated columnist

First of all, terrorism shouldn’t be a part of war terminology. It should be thought of as a medical pathology, a form of mental illness. It cannot be effectively dealt with by huge military hardware, but in complex ways like treating an illness, not some simplistic way like just bombing people.

It’s something we need to root out and treat and examine, do all the things Kerry was attacked for. And so, the Bushies, they introduce an incredibly self-serving, simple notion of how you defeat terrorism. Like the old use of the Mafia by every police agency in the country that wanted to get a bigger budget, saying organized crime was everywhere.

The reality is the Bush people have led us in exactly the wrong direction. They played a shell game with 9/11 and transferred it to their pet target of Iraq, which they were focused on before 9/11 while they ignored information about the terrorist attacks. There’s ample documentation of that.

It’s damning that these people went to war for lies. As a result, they weakened the country and provided a great recruiting tool for the Muslim world.

We also changed a secular Iraq into a place of potential religious war. We’re bogged down now in what the Pentagon says could be a 10-year war of occupation.

The United States has to get out. We are the problem there, and the longer we stay, the more we recruit terrorists. Maybe the administration wants that, to keep us constantly in fear, create a bigger war budget.

That doesn’t make us safer; it puts us in more danger. And it’s so obvious; you wonder why it’s not the central issue of the campaign.

[The Bush administration’s] approval rating should be 20 percent, 30 percent by now. But they use a macho argument with the false appeal of patriotism, even though wrong, to convince us that somehow they are indispensable and that anyone who begs to differ is a coward and afraid to fight. It is the old argument of the bully, and it has worked for a period of time.

They have wakened us in their war on terrorism, and, unfortunately, Kerry has not been effective in making that argument. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Kathy Kelly
Co-founder, Voices in the Wilderness

John C. Reilly

We can’t rely on the governments of the United States or the United Kingdom to counter terrorism. Their foreign policies are creating terrorists faster than they can kill them. The peace movements of the United States and the United Kingdom must work together to change these foreign polices and urge people in our countries to live more equitably and fairly with other people.

We have to ask ourselves why any person would contemplate throwing away his own life, even though some of these people are quite young, and causing a great deal of death and destruction in the process. This is the essential question that neither of the candidates for president in the United States nor Mr. Tony Blair is willing to face.

Those of us who witnessed the effects of economic sanctions in Iraq—which brutally and lethally punished more than 500,000 Iraqi children and which were followed by an illegal, immoral shock-and-awe campaign that ushered in a hated occupation—have some insights into the frustration and rage felt within some neighborhoods in Iraq. For others who have witnessed the plight of Palestinians under occupation, Iraq is but one spot in the world where people don’t want to be dominated by Western interests.

On September 11, [Secretary of State] Colin Powell said, “The people who perpetrated this barbarous act think that by killing people and destroying buildings, you can achieve a political goal. In a democracy, they will always be wrong.”

We need courage to look into the mirror he held up to us. —as told to Joe Piasecki

(Kelly is being fined $20,000 for bringing medical supplies to Iraqi children during U.S. sanctions of that region.)

John C. Reilly

I think it’s a war that can’t be won, honestly. The rhetoric surrounding it is like the war on drugs—we haven’t really gained too much ground on that—and I think we need to start looking at the broader questions of why these things happen. We’re trying to teach democracy to the rest of the world, but we’re living in a country where the president was not popularly elected. That is sort of the epitome of hypocrisy.

It’s kind of sad that we’ve gotten to a place where people who get to have this mouthpiece to talk about these things are actors in a press junket for a movie, but, hell, if I’m one of the only people allowed to voice those things, it’s the least I can do.

I don’t mean to sound condescending, like I’m trying to tell people how to think. I think there’s plenty of room in the political spectrum for all different points of view. I think people’s points of view about the issues the politicians are talking about are a lot more nuanced and complicated than we’re given credit for.

I feel a little scared to comment too much on September 11, because it is such an emotional subject, and I would never want to be flippant or dismissive of anyone’s experience and anyone’s feelings about that. I have a brother in Chicago who’s a firefighter. At a human level, the tragedy of those people—I would never want to cheapen it by turning it into some kind of political discussion.

Andrew Rice

I don’t think we’ve done enough in any regard, looking at why it happened, how we reacted to it. I don’t think we’ve gone deep enough. You can hire a commission, do a report, and that’s fine and well, but everyone has to do some reflecting about why we’re in the situation we’re in and have very thoughtful, careful responses. You know, throwing gasoline on the fire doesn’t really put out the fire. —as told to John Esther

Andrew Rice
Co-founder, September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows; brother of David Rice, who died in the 9/11 New York attacks

After watching the president give his speech last night, one part I found intriguing—and I normally don’t take an interest in what he says; it seems disingenuous—he said that there’s a need for democracy in the Middle East because in the respective regimes where people feel hopeless, those are the types of people who strap bombs to their bodies and kill people.

And he’s actually right. That’s one of the key aspects of terrorism. He’s acknowledging a political nature of our conflict with terrorists by that statement. People who are more progressive, who usually disagree with him and want to look at it more complexly, tend to want to talk about the political problems in the Middle East that feed into terrorism. I put myself into this category, but people like me have been attacked as “the blame-America-first crowd,” for wanting to talk about our close relationship with countries like Saudi Arabia.

I would never say that my brother wasn’t murdered, never insinuate that we deserved 9/11. The point is what motivates people to become terrorists.

The two countries we attacked, no citizens of those countries are predominantly members of Al Qaeda. When you look at the members of Al Qaeda who bombed the USS Cole and the World Trade Center, the overwhelming majority don’t come from regimes that are our enemies; they came from our allies: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt.

There is hopelessness, a sense of repression that causes people to be extremists, but the reason they attack America is the perceived idea that we somehow help these regimes. Why would someone upset with Saddam, our enemy, attack us? It doesn’t make sense. These countries we give aid to, we look the other way when they clamp down on groups for democratic change. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Kate Kendell
Director, National Center for Lesbian Rights

The question we should be asking is: Are we any safer? Because if we’re no safer than we were September 11, 2001, we have wasted goodwill and billions of dollars for nothing. I think my children’s future is much more imperiled than on September 11 or September 10 or September 12 because of this administration’s policies, and the issue of whether we’re safer is very much related to how the war on terror will ever end.

Ed Asher

It will never end unless it’s actually a war on terror rather than a war against anyone we choose to attack or invade, when we think doing so plays to our advantage for any one of a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the war on terror.

If we’re going to be really going after “the terrorists,” then there needs to be an authentic effort in that direction. To date, there hasn’t been. —as told to John Esther

Ed Asner
Actor and activist

I’ve just read some Internet communications about the United States, and I guess my simple comment is as long as we have a media that fail to report many of the demonstrations that took place in New York, that fail to report the number of arbitrary arrests of peaceful people—as long as the arrests occur and people are incarcerated amid roaches and rats in filthy conditions, as long as investigations are conducted of people who might protest, I regard this as an even greater threat to our democracy than the terrorists who have truly yet to be apprehended by these measures. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Helena Maria Viramontes
Cornell University professor and author of Under the Feet of Jesus and The Moths and Other Stories

As the attacks of 9/11 occurred, I was teaching a writing seminar at Cornell. Around 10 that morning, I rushed over to Sage Hall, which has a television, and watched the dreaded events replayed and replayed with a stunned terror. Both my students and I were in tears, but for different reasons. Many had families living in New York City, and most classes were canceled immediately so that students could call home. But, as for me, terror struck in my heart, because I felt, as did many others, that Bush, falling out favor at the polls, would use this attack as a rallying call to inflate the ego and pockets of the White House.

The Bush administration—and when I say the administration, I am speaking about those who make up his Cabinet—have always been hell-bent on destroying Iraq, whether they needed an excuse or not. They use the guise of fighting against terrorism, when in fact, they have made terrorists of innocent people, including some of our very own soldiers. As a writer invested in language, I condemn their simplistic and dishonest (as opposed to exact, or direct) use of “Wild West” language. As a woman, I condemn their use of inflating “family values” while simultaneously dismantling and exploiting women and children, both here and abroad. And finally, as a citizen and a voter, I have come to realize the Bushies’ policies on postwar Iraq are fraught with lies and deceit. If the Bushies want to find terrorists, they simply have to look in the mirror. —via e-mail

Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Nationally syndicated columnist, “The Hutchinson Report”

Terrorism is a major threat, not only to the safety of many in the world, but certainly to the safety of many Americans.

Bush and Democratic presidential contender Kerry have framed a major debate around the issue of which individual candidate, Kerry or Bush, is best able to protect Americans and others from terrorism. That issue has dominated the political discourse at all levels over the last year and indeed over the last three years.

Unfortunately, it has become a political football, tossed around between Kerry and Bush and the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s almost as if each side, political faction, is trying to do a one-upmanship on the other to prove that they—in this case, Kerry and the Democrats, and Bush and the Republicans—are in fact the most responsible and most fit to carry this issue.

Dr. Susan Block

The problem is because it has become such a hot-button political football and has so dominated the political landscape, in a sense it’s moved out other issues: health care, education, the loss of jobs, the environment and campaign reform. The list can go on and on of critical issues that also have major impact on the lives of Americans apart from the issue of terrorism and national security.

The major concern is because terrorism, post-9/11, has become the issue within the political mainstream of debate, the other issues have gotten so lost and so out of focus that, in a sense, the American people are being done a major disservice by both parties—again, because of this top-heavy emphasis on terrorism and national security. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Dr. Susan Block
Sex therapist, author and television host

There’s another question that always nags at my horny heart whenever something important happens, and [9/11] is no exception: What does sex have to do with it? I’m talking about sex as the essence of life, the supreme motivator, the greatest good and the evil impulse.

What does sex have to do with America being attacked? What does sex have to do with a young man in the prime of his life who believes that his wife—if he can afford one, or four—should be shut up in a tent, uneducated, unseen? Who thinks that if he expends his righteously raging libido in a terrible, violent, homicidal-suicidal act in the name of a macho male God, that he will be rewarded in heaven with a harem of beautiful virgins, there to serve his every desire in an erotic eternal paradise?

What does sex have to do with having our two tallest phallic works of architecture, our biggest dicks—Dick One and Dick Two—blown up before our early-morning eyes on international TV, over and over again, wounding us where it really hurts, using our own planes like the castrator’s box cutter to slice into our soaring symbols of virile trade, forcing a ghastly, fiery sort of ejaculation, a gush of smoke, body parts and pain, a volcanic eruption of awful beauty (beauty has no morals), a castration, a degradation, a humiliation beyond death? Though the deaths are painful enough, this international, multibillion-fold humiliation is a bitter salt on our wounds, the humbling of America, the lone superpower, master of the world, the Man.

We are all men in America, all strong compared with the poor of the world, and we have all had our big dicks cut off. Suddenly. Without warning (well, we didn’t feel warned). And it hurts. Real bad. And we cry—oh, how we cry. And we pray—oh, how we pray. And we’re scared—oh, so scared. And we talk stupid when we’re scared. We’re a bunch of raving castrati. Our leaders talk about crusades, wanting someone “dead or alive” and ridding the world of evil.

Perhaps this “different kind of war” needs to be fought in a different way. Not according to the more typical military paradigm of the baboon, but according to the bonobo way. Unlike baboons, common chimpanzees and humans, bonobo chimps (who are 98-percent genetically similar to humans) don’t make war, and they’ve never been seen killing each other in the wild or captivity. They do fight, but they seem to resolve most disputes by exchanging sex. Sexual pleasure reduces violent tension, mollifying the less powerful as well as paying obeisance to the more powerful. The bonobo way is to spread the wealth, sexually and otherwise.

We Americans can be raging castrati, or we can show ourselves to be world leaders in greatness, generosity, courage and wisdom.—excerpted from Block’s journals. Read more at

Jamie Masada

Sherman Austin
Activist and anarchist, imprisoned for terrorist crimes

We need to think about where the power is going: into the hands of politicians, like Bush or Kerry, or into the hands of the people. The people’s interests are obviously different than those of the people who hold political power in the government, especially after 9/11, when we can see the blatant erosion of civil liberties isn’t something they’re slipping under the rug; it has become legalized in a number of ways, like the Patriot Act.

When Hitler took power, what he did was considered legal. Today, raiding people’s homes under the Patriot Act; silencing people’s First Amendment rights; surveilling people; invading privacy; and establishing blacklists, no-fly lists and potential terrorist lists all has become legal. It’s all part of the same agenda this government has had since it took power, but in the present day, it’s taken the next step toward a police state, the next step toward fascism.

For example, what happened to me, with my house being raided by fed agents under the USA Patriot Act for a Web site that contained different views than those of the people in political power. It was shut down, and I was subjected to interrogations, threats and ultimately a year in prison under a fabricated charge I didn’t commit. —as told to Joe Piasecki

Jamie Masada
Laugh Factory owner and operator, Times Square and Hollywood

We should be asking: Are we as free as we were before? There’s more burden through airport security, especially for people like me, who travel coast to coast regularly. Did the terrorists affect us? Yes, they did—our freedom that we cherished. We ask if it’s getting better against terrorists, and I say yes, because they don’t mess with us anymore.

But the war on terror will never be over. We have to be more conscious of the crazy people out there. We have to be conscious of who’s around. We’ll never gain our freedom back; we’re never going to get rid of the fact that people around the world now hate us.

With all this said, though, it’s sad to see all the restrictions we live under now. It’s overkill. During the Republican convention, people couldn’t take more than one picture of a building without being questioned by cops. Every corner has people checking bags and photos, and the police asking us to check the bags of every person who walks in. I understand it; I believe in the principle that we have to live with it and be more cautious. But a lot of times, it’s overkill. —as told to Carl Kozlowski

Charles Baxter
Novelist, Saul and Patsy and The Feast of Love

If you try to create a story, a short story or a life story, you need to have a plot, which includes a past, a present and a future. And in order to have a plot, the characters have to desire or want something, or they have to fear and avoid something else.

Stories based on desires and wants and ambitions might be called progressive stories, in the sense that they send their characters moving in a forward direction, and stories based on fears and phobias and avoidance maneuvers are regressive stories, because in these stories, the characters tend to move backward. Of course, most stories, and most characters, and most human beings, are composites of both desires and fears.

Most of the stories that we have all been telling ourselves lately, as a nation and as a culture, have largely been regressive stories, that is, stories about fear. Since September 11, we seem to be plagued by our fears and by our avoidance behaviors. People seem to be reluctant to fly, apprehensive about their investments, afraid of opening their mail, uneager to start new businesses, confounded about the future. There seems to be a reluctance to make any long-term plans, as if we did not have a future to make plans in.

It’s as if the future has been revoked by terror. Apparently, we don’t want to have any new stories.

But there must always be new stories.

You can’t have a story without forward narrative movement, and you can’t have movement without a belief in some kind of future. Without that, all you have is immobility or a stalemate. In a historical period dominated by anxiety, that very anxiety can be a corrective to mindless and perhaps selfish optimism. We are in a time when we should be careful not to let anxiety prevent us from imagining that a fascinating and unpredictable future still exists and that great plans are still in the works. If you give in to anxiety, you will not have a story, or, indeed, much of a future. —via e-mail

Additional reporting by John Esther, Carl Kozlowski, Amby Sarabia and Merlin Chowkwonyun