Letters To America On The Drive Home
Part Five: Lost in America, Closer to Home, September 19, 2001
We’re down to the last two letters from my drive home across the country in the days after 9/11, twenty years ago this week. Thank you for letting me share them with you. I was just so desperate that week to try, as one person, to prevent what was clearly being planned in the White House: Let’s go to war! While NPR began broadcasting these letters, the Murdoch empire and its publishing arm enacted a plan to silence my voice. Life for me was about to change in a profound way. My final letter from 2001 will be posted here on my Substack this Wednesday. Then I’ll go back to 1-2 posts a week focusing on current events and political action, plus my weekly podcast. Please share these with your family and friends. And now, my letter, written 20 years ago today…
Lost in America, Closer to Home
September 19, 2001
We have made it to Columbus, Ohio for the night and are staying just a couple of blocks from the State Capitol building where Governor Jim Rhodes gave the order on May 4, 1970, to send the National Guard to Kent State. There they opened fire on hundreds of unarmed students, killing four and wounding many others.
Few dared to call it a terrorist act committed by the state of Ohio… but, there I go again. Off message! Stay focused on the main themes, Mike: “AMERICA UNITED!” “SMOKE ‘EM OUTTA THEIR HOLES!” “HUNT ‘EM DOWN, AND GIT ‘EM!”
I know we are all supposed to be supportive of Mr. Bush, at the moment, but has it dawned on anyone that he is not, in fact, the “president?” I hate to bring up a thorny subject, but this is the man who lost the election. He got the least number of votes between the two major party candidates. And it was his brother Jeb, the Governor, who oversaw the disputed vote count in Florida. Eventually the Supreme Court halted that vote count and declared Bush the president — with the deciding vote cast by a justice appointed by Bush’s dad to the court.
I mean, c’mon.
I am sorry to bring this up now, but the tragedy of the past week is EXACTLY the kind of horrible circumstance many Americans feared we’d find ourselves in -- A NATIONAL CRISIS UNDER A LEADER WHO IS NOT THERE BY THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE. He and his fake flight jacket is all we’ve got right now in the Oval Office, Bush speaking like a wind-up doll, mouthing a bunch of nonsense clichés, repeating them over and over and over.
Bush keeps calling what we are in “a war.” Has anyone told him that the more he keeps using this word, the more likely that is exactly what we are going to be in?
All of you who are screaming for war: are you prepared to pay the price, to take thousands of more casualties? Because, my big, macho-talking friends, THAT is what this kind of war will be like. America is a complex and open society with a massive and intricate infrastructure that is fragile and vulnerable and susceptible to easy attack and disruption. IT CAN BE BROUGHT DOWN WITH A BOXCUTTER. Let me repeat that:
IT CAN BE BROUGHT DOWN -- IT CAN BE BROUGHT TO A TOTAL STANDSTILL -- BY A HIJACKER WITH A BOXCUTTER!
It’s nearly a week now with no stock market, no regular television schedule, no professional sports, three days with no planes in the air (for the first time since 1911), no airports open, the country essentially shut down. A week later and the phone lines still don’t all work. A boxcutter, folks! Do not be misled into thinking he with the biggest missile is going to win this “war.”
We will never be able to protect all of us from this kind of terrorism. When does this end? After we have killed every terrorist? When exactly is THAT scheduled to happen? Or is it all over when we kill Osama bin Laden? Is that the day we win the war? Are you serious? Do you really think the military-industrial complex will ever let this war be over?
Bush now says that this is “a war against the evil people in the world.” Oh, really? THAT war! Yeah, we should be able to defeat “evil,” oh, sometime in the next millennium or two. Get a grip. “War” is not going to get the justice we demand or make us more safe. You know it and I know it. There is a different way to go, and I will lay it out in a later letter, but to simplify it for now and put it in a nutshell, it goes like this:
One billion people on this planet have no clean drinking water. Two billion have no electricity. Three billion have never made a phone call from their home. We have the money and the people-power to alter ALL of this. We also have the moral imperative to stop supporting repressive regimes and corporations who exploit these people.
When we decide to help improve billions of people’s lives, we will pull the rug out from under the terrorists who need those they send to their deaths to be poor and exploited and angry at us. The multi-millionaire bin Laden isn’t going to give up HIS life!
When all the people in the Middle East have food on the table, a decent home, a good job, and democratic control over their own lives, who among them is going to want to sacrifice his life by crashing himself into a tall office building?
Sure, there will always be those who go insane and kill without reason. The British saw that in a Dunblane schoolyard, we saw it in Oklahoma City. There will always be religious fanatics willing to kill and be killed because they believe God has so ordered them. Ask the families of the assassinated doctors at women’s clinics in Buffalo and Florida about those willing to commit evil in the name of religion in America.
There IS a way to protect us from further attack, to lift the rest of the world out of its misery, and to stop domestic right-wing terrorists, but it requires some smarts and some guts, two things in short supply in Washington these days.
After arriving in Columbus, we meet up with one of our best friends from Flint, Al Hirvela. Al teaches at Ohio State. He was just the shot in the arm I needed this week. He and I and a bunch of others all used to put out an alternative newspaper in Flint many years ago, and we miss being around each other in times like these. Al is a Quaker and a pacifist, and sitting in the Big Boy restaurant last night talking to him was the kind of grounding experience I needed after many days on the road.
My new book, “Stupid White Men” was supposed to go on sale on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, but the publisher spent the rest of that day this past week contacting thousands to pull my book from their shelves. My first thought is, isn’t this still a free country? Who orders books removed from shelves? Do the terrorists win when we do that?
But today my book editor called because I’ve asked him to send me a copy of my book. I have dedicated it to Al, and to think that I would be here when he opens it and sees his name on that dedication page was indeed a cool idea. But I’m told the concept of “overnighting“ something right now is dicey at best.
The book publisher then dropped more bad news on me: They are “delaying” the release of my book due to the events of the past week. They’ve decided this book is going to “upset people,” and in light of the attacks on New York and DC, the book suddenly gave everyone connected to it the heebie-jeebies. What a strange feeling to have in a democracy!
I am weirdly relieved for now because I have absolutely ZERO interest in going out on the book tour that was planned for this week. Even though I have much I would like to say -- opinions and thoughts that are NOT being heard in the media right now -- I’ve been told no one will have me on TV so “let’s let things cool down.”
I am very proud of this book, and I hoped it would stimulate a lot of discussion on various topics. I don’t know now when it will come out -- maybe next month? (NOTE: The book did not come out in the next month. I was told it would not be released until I “rewrote it” and “toned it down.” I refused. A fight ensued. They canceled the book. The public and the press screamed bloody murder. That saved the book. It went on to become the biggest selling nonfiction hardcover of 2002. I’ll share that story in a few months.)
In the meantime, I will continue to communicate on the Web and speak to any media outlet that will listen to -- and report uncensored -- what I have to say about the tragic situation in which we are now immersed.
I can’t believe all the incredible letters you are sending me -- over 41,000 emails in the last week. I am so sorry I cannot respond to each of you. I scroll down through the subject headings and read many of the letters and it is clear I am not alone in my sadness over this tragedy or in the anger I have for what is being proposed by our leaders. I will print these letters and let our elected officials see what the REST of America is thinking about regarding the idea of “war.”
We are now driving across Ohio toward West Virginia and Pennsylvania. On the radio, NPR is running a history report on Osama bin Laden. We are told that he comes from a wealthy family and that they are the main builders for the Saudi royal family. They’ve remodeled palaces and built holy sites. Their construction projects are everywhere. One word pops into my head, and it sums up the kind of low-life we are talking about here:
Bin Laden is a contractor. Well, that makes sense.
Someone at NPR has tracked me down on the road and asked me to stop by the nearest NPR station and read these letters I’ve been sending you over the air. I agreed, but when I was at the local NPR affiliate later in the afternoon, I got choked up reading them into the microphone. I wonder now if they will even broadcast them. I hope they do, as I felt that my reading of them conveyed more of a real and human sense of what I am trying to say and what I am seeing on this drive across America.
Later this evening, my letters go out on an NPR program called The Connection from WBUR in Boston. More mail pours in. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike we pass through nearby Shanksville, PA, where the United flight went down. The girl at the newsstand counter in the rest stop says it was “just three miles down the road.” Close enough for all of them to hear it crash. Her voice shakes as she tells me this. A car parked in front of the door has a temporary “Cemetery Pass” sitting on its dash.
I think of Barbara Olson, the conservative commentator and wife of the lawyer who successfully argued Bush’s case in Bush v. Gore in front of the Supreme Court last year. I have been on “Politically Incorrect” with her on a couple of occasions. She was always a warm and friendly person. She was on that plane, on her way to do that show.
Monday night, the program went on, and Bill Maher left a chair on the stage empty, in her honor. I agreed with her on nothing, and I cried when I saw that empty chair. She was a human being who deserved to live. She was an American who loved her country. Maybe I should have gotten to know her better, instead of just dismissing her because of her politics. She was a year younger than me…
We will make it home to New York City, sometime tonight…
I’d like to close today’s Substack post by thanking all who participated in Occupy Wall Street which began 10 years ago this weekend. It spread across the country as millions supported it and participated in it. Hundreds of Occupys were formed to protest the control corporate America has over our Democracy — Occupy Oakland, Occupy Denver, Occupy Battle Creek, etc. Four months of mass protests and civil disobedience would eventually lead to the Fight for a $15 minimum wage, the rise of Democratic Socialism and Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, Women’s March and so many other movements. So thanks to all who lit the spark 10 years ago this weekend in Zuccotti Park.
And finally, please let me leave you with the names and faces of the ten Afghan civilians we murdered with a drone strike on August 29th in Kabul. Seven were children. The three adults worked for American aid agencies. Had not the New York Times and other press refused to believe the “official story,” General McKenzie would never have admitted on Friday the military’s “mistake.” As the Times wrote yesterday, “almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the Aug. 29 drone strike turned out to be false. This is what is done in our name. After the fall of Kabul we were inundated with propaganda that the victorious Taliban would begin their beheadings, their rapes, their sex slavery, their mass executions of Afghans who worked for Americans. So far, they haven’t done that. But in the 5 weeks since we lost the War, 21,600 women have been raped in the United States. Approximately 240,384 women have been arrested in the U.S. in these past five weeks. Tonight there are over 230,000 American women incarcerated in jails and prisons in this country. More women and girls are behind bars in America than any other country on earth. And WE are the ones massacring civilians in Afghanistan, not the Taliban. No one on cable news will just come out and say this. I just did. On my Substack site, where no one at Substack will prevent you from reading this.
Here are the names and faces of the innocents we killed:
Zemari Ahmadi (age 43)
Naser Ahmadi (30)
Zamir Ahmadi (20)
Faisal Ahmadi (16)
Farzad Ahmadi (10)
Arwin Ahmadi (7)
Benyamin Ahmadi (6)
Malika Ahmadi (3)
Somaya Ahmadi (3)
Hayat Ahmadi (2)
I posted this on my fb page today because, the remark of the parent supporting the banning of books dealing with race stuck in my head. I shared an article recently about a PA school district that is banning books about the historical experiences of black and other “minority” groups in American history. One of the fathers of a child at the school was quoted as saying that he didn’t want his daughter to be “ashamed of being white.” This controversy over studying and evaluating our past reminded me of the one regarding the planned exhibit on aerial warfare commemorating the 50th anniversary of the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians that was planned and subsequent scrapped. Here’s a quote from “Hiroshima in America” by Robert J Lifton and Greg Mitchell. “From the time of Hiroshima, Americans have assigned themselves the task of finding virtue in the first use of the most murderous device ever created. We have found the need to avoid at any cost a sense of moral culpability for this act. These efforts have taken us to the far reaches of moral argument, to the extent of creating something close to an Orwellian reversal. And there has been a cost, one much greater than we wish to recognize.” A small recent example of that cost is the drone attack that killed 10 people in Kabul when water jugs were mistaken for bombs, but the wanton destruction of countries, of human beings both American and the victims of foreign policy with the most brutal weapons ever invented that began with Hiroshima has never ended. Any attempt to confront the dominant myth of American “freedom and equality” domestically or internationally has been blocked. As a result, our country is divided and crumbling. There’s a hole in Uncle Sam’s arm where all the money goes. The “defense” budget devours the wealth while we Americans fight among ourselves for crumbs, for human rights: decent housing, education, healthcare, clean air, water, self determination. According to the ACLU, “Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 700% – 2.3 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime. One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys—compared to one of every 17 white boys. How can you talk about slavery in the past and not talk about incarceration today? You can’t. Most Americans of any ethnicity do not benefit from this forced ignorance. We cannot make a better world until we understand how this one came to be. We have more in common with each other than with the powers that only see $$$ in every living thing. Studying history can help us to acknowledge that.
I recall standing in stark horror as I watched the news about Kent State. I had been out of the U.S. Air Force a mere four years at that point. The shock that gripped me then is not gone entirely. The claim was "a car backfired, triggering an instant reaction"; Or, "the soldiers were not to have live ammo".
But the greatest failure: One does not fire their weapon until that command is given, especially where their is no enemy; worse, the guns were pointing at the UNARMED. Oh, I suspect Nixon got his jollies off. He hated demonstrators. The crooked man with the crooked smile.
I had a knot of shame in my gut, that day. My brain recoiled in disbelief. Not my country! Please God, not my country! But, yes, this was and IS my country. We are all the worse off for our sins of killing and outright murder. The trail of blood of the innocents runs thick across the land. But, we will never learn. We will never learn.