Twenty years ago this week, in the days after 9/11, I had no way home from LA to NY, other than to find one of the few remaining rental cars in the city and hit the road. In this, my second letter to my fellow Americans, written 20 years ago tonight, I share my thoughts as we head to our first stop in Flagstaff, pleading with Bush not to take us to war.
Across America Tonight
September 14, 2001
I am inside a Dodge minivan on the road tonight, the only way left to get out of L.A. and back home to our daughter and our friends in New York City. Oddly enough, I have never driven before across this vast country of ours. My wife and I have now stopped in Flagstaff, Arizona for a few hours sleep before moving on.
The sorrow and anger builds across America. Talk radio tonight was filled with calls for carpet-bombing every Arab country. Many want revenge, blood. But a surprising number of people have called for us to not add to the killing of more innocent humans. The rest-stops and the convenience stores along the way were filled with quiet, solemn people, many of whom, like us, can get home no other way than by this four-day road trip.
Our daughter is fine, concerned mostly by my desire to wait until we can get booked on a plane, rather than we stay safely on Earth and drive. I explained to everyone that an Army Ranger friend had once shown me how to sneak weapons of self-defense onto a plane (a sock with a baseball in it that can knock a hijacker out cold; and another method I don’t want to describe here other than to say that you’ll need dental floss to pull this off). Once again, I was outvoted 2 to 1. This is nothing new. Thus, the Dodge.
We have learned the names of more people we know who lost their lives in the attacks on Tuesday. Bill Weems, who worked as a line producer for us this year, was on the flight from Boston that crashed into the World Trade Center. He was such a sweet and decent soul. Such senseless madness.
The children of New York who are orphaned tonight ... what do we say or do for them? I will do my part -- anything, something -- as soon as I get to back New York. But it will never be enough.
The firefighters of New York: they are on every other block, every day, and they are your best neighbors. Sitting out on the sidewalks in front of their fire stations, a good word and a kind smile to all who pass by... now 340+ of them gone, having risked their lives to save the victims of a carnage they soon became part of.
A longtime friend from Flint, Barbara, is a clerical worker at the Pentagon. I have heard no word about her condition. I have tried contacting her family to no avail. Her son, Malcolm, worked on our TV series. I cannot find him. I keep getting tears in my eyes. Once Barbara gave me a tour of the Pentagon, taking me everywhere. She got such a kick out of ushering me around this building that I used to march on. Please, those of you reading this, our friends from Flint who know Barbara — if you know how she is — please write me. Please.
The man who occupies the White House cried today. Good. Keep crying, Mr. Bush. The more you cry, the less you will go to that dark side where anger rages to a point where you will want to blindly kill. Your dad's and Reagan's old cronies -- Eagleburger, Baker, Schultz -- are all calling for you to bomb first and ask questions later. You must NOT do this. If only because you do not want to stoop to these mass murderers' level. Yes, find out who did it. Yes, see that they NEVER do it again.
But GET A GRIP, man. "Declare war?" War against whom? One guy in the desert whom we can never seem to find? Are our leaders telling us that the most powerful country on earth cannot dispose of one sick evil guy? Because if that is what you are telling us, then we are truly screwed. If you are unable to take out this lone mass-murdering wannabe (who is no longer a wannabe), what on earth would you do for us if we were attacked by a nation of literally millions?
No, I beg you, Mr. Bush, stay with the tears. When you go today to comfort the wounded of New York, tell the mayor, a guy most of us do not like, that he is doing an incredible job, keeping the spirits of everyone up as high as they can be at this moment. This is a city I believe he loves, his own cancer is still with him, yet this week he goes beyond the call of duty. He is not using this tragedy as a call to war. Tell him to stay that way.
And you — DO NOT declare war and massacre more innocents. After bin Laden's previous act of terror, our last elected president went and bombed what he said was "bin Laden's camp" in Afghanistan -- but instead he just killed civilians. Then he bombed a factory in the Sudan, saying it was "making chemical weapons." It turned out to be making aspirin. Innocent people murdered by our Air Force. Clinton’s Air Force. Are you now in charge of Clinton’s Air Force?
Back in May, you gave the Taliban in Afghanistan $43 million dollars of our tax money. No free nation on earth would give them a cent, but you gave them a gift of $43 million because they promised you that they had "banned all drugs."
Your “drug war” — and odd idea considering you used to use some of those drugs — was more important to you than the actual war the Taliban had inflicted on its own people. You helped to fund the regime who had given refuge to the very man you now say is responsible for killing my friend on that plane from Boston, and for killing friends of families of thousands and thousands of people. And now, tonight, how dare you talk about more killing! Shame! Shame! Shame! Explain your actions in support of the Taliban! Tell us why your father and his partner Mr. Reagan trained Mr. bin Laden and the mujahideen in how to be terrorists!
Am I angry? You bet I am. I am an American citizen, and my leaders have taken my money that ended up leading to mass murder. And now my friends have paid the price with their lives.
Keep crying, Mr. Bush. Keep running to Omaha or wherever it is you go to hide while others die, just as you ran during Vietnam while claiming to be "on duty" in the Air National Guard. Nine boys from my high school died in that miserable war. And now you are asking for "unity" so you can start another one? Do not insult me or my country like this!
Yes, I, too, will be in church at noon today, on this national day of mourning. I will pray for you, and us, and the children of New York, and the children of this sad and ugly world ...
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My conversation with Sean Penn