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It’s impossible not to feel for the family and friends of those who died so violently on 9/11. The pain will linger for many years to come. Still, while I understand and feel anguish, pain and uncertainty I can’t support more killing as a response to killing. And the prospect of an expanding war horrifies me.
I’ve cried with more people who’ve lost love ones at the hands of another than I can remember. The autopsied body of a teenage boy, shot in the back of the head by police, haunts me to this day. I can still see him lying on that stainless steel slab. I remember Sam Owens, a mentally-ill man killed by a rural sheriff’s deputy and Mickey McClinton, his body chained to the back of a vehicle, set afire burned and dragged down a country road by the Klan. Those young men died because someone thought that they were “no account.” I remember my anger when more than 15 cops acting on a John Doe warrant surrounded my then 13-year-old son with guns drawn and ready to kill. If my son had been killed or injured physically I don’t know exactly how I would have responded. But my first thought was of revenge. I know the face of terrorism and what it makes one feel.
Since September 11th, several people have asked for my thoughts and offered their opinions about what is facing us. What I encountered touches on a number of concerns such as “when does one fight?” or “what is the good fight?” Others are unsure as to who the enemy is – a country or counties, Muslims, Arabs, the Taliban or just Osama Bin Laden? Some bluntly ask the race question, “Is this a black man’s fight?” A white friend of mine asked me, “I hope you’re not calling this a white man’s war?” Before I could catch myself I responded, “It is!” And almost immediately after the words came from my mouth I thought: those planes didn’t distinguish by race. But then again, America distinguishes by race.
Many expressed concern as to what happens to all of the other issues, quarrels and matters of enormous importance. What are we to do about the conflict, division and dialogue during this time of general unity? Yes, our nation and our individual lives are different now. They are affected by these events but the other stuff isn’t gone. Everything isn’t different. It’s arguable, even, that nothing political is different at all. These problems and issues are not less important. Less pressing, maybe, but not less present.
Young men of the hip-hop generation have had their world-view shaped by racial profiling and an abusive relationship with police, society and each other. In a protracted war with the possibility of a draft, they have the most to lose — their lives. One young brother, a victim of a public cavity search by police provided a comment I found both funny and insightful, “If those people had wanted to hurt black people they would have bombed the penitentiary, he joked. Maybe having a criminal record isn’t so bad after all” thinking it might help him escape military service.
There is an effort by some blacks to completely detach themselves from the arrogance of white America. It is as though they view the attack as having happened in some strange or foreign country. I suspect it is an expression of the dualism that W.E.B. DuBois often wrote about- that blacks want to be accepted but know they’ll never be so they consciously or subconsciously root for the underdog no matter how vicious the dog might be. I see many of those folk in the same light as those that support the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro. The fact that Castro is a dictator is irrelevant to the fact that he stood up to America.
Immediately after the attack I encountered several people who expressed the sentiments such as “why am I not surprised?” or “the chickens coming home to roost” or “reaping what you sow” or “America had it coming.” I’ve heard more than one person say, “at least everybody isn’t afraid of this country” and “it’s time someone stood up to them.” While I was on a local radio show, Anton Gunn, the brother of a black man killed on the USS Cole called in to say Americans needed to look at what our country represents to those in other countries. He seemed to infer that his brother died in vain. Some are more cautious with their remarks but still seem to express a kind of uneasy, fantasy-like solidarity with the terrorists. More than once I heard, “They (whites) can’t hear or feel black people’s pain or demands right here in America.” Conversely, Cornel West said, “White folk now know what it feels like to be a nigger.”
In a real sense, many blacks are more than patriotic; they are “super patriots’ still trying to prove their worth and to be accepted by white America. Blacks have always been ready to fight and die for this country even when America didn’t even recognize their existence as anything more than an unpaid work force. Crispus Attucks is a good example. On March 1770, Attucks, a black man and fugitive from slavery, was the first to be killed by the British in the struggle for American Independence.
There are the blindly patriotic who believe in the adage “my country right or wrong” who will put on a uniform, pick up a gun and give their life to “defend the flag” without question. They’re pretty much like people who fly into buildings. The difference being, we call the hijackers cowards and our soldiers are called patriots and heroes. In reality, I know that for every single black person against the war, those in favor of war can trot out 100 to back it. Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Ray Charles, Lionel Ritchie and others singing patriotic songs chill opposition to the war and create the illusion that blacks are united behind a wholesale invasion of Afghanistan and the obliteration of Baghdad. The media shows Condelezza Rice and Colin Powell, in charge of the war planning, as cast against the picture of Rep Barbara Lee, who was the sole vote in Congress against the war. And while the World Trade Center and Wall Street might represent money and power, many of the people murdered were black, white, brown, Latino and others of color whose only crime was they went to work or came to help those who had been hurt.
I want to believe that people who feel hopeless fly airplanes into buildings. I know it could be both as simple as that and far more complex. But as we stand on the brink of war against what George Bush has termed a faceless enemy, I can’t help but feel the futility of our response to this tragedy. It makes no sense to simply prepare to kill thousands of poor Afghanis as a response to the horrors of 9/11. And even if you could target those responsible, it doesn’t seem a rational response to kill people who are already willing to die or feel themselves to be already dead.
And now there’s the call for unity, to stand together as one nation. But for the past ten years it’s been three-strikes you’re out and a non-stop low intensity war here in America against people of color. Now, there is a real possibility that black soldiers will fight side by side with whites and Hispanics and lay down and die, largely in order to allow the state of Israel to maintain it’s system of racial oppression. Already, Ariel Sharon and others in Israel are calling Yassar Arafat and the Palestinians terrorists. Although I believe that Islamic fundamentalism is a danger, if America’s new military role is to wipe out religious fundamentalism, where does it start and where does it end. The KKK? The 700 Hundred Club? Bob Jones University?
The idea of any coming war or military action provokes a very personal and protective response in me, one that relates more to my experience and life than to any recent occurrence. As a soldier, a thinker, a father I can’t help but realize that black people will invariably be drawn into the fight because that’s how it’s always been. And our current administration has not proved itself to be a friend. So why, then, and how is it that are we all on the same side now?
I wish I could simply say that I am against war. I really do believe that breaking the cycle of violence is the only way to bring about real security and peace of mind, body and heart. The only rational position to take is to advocate peace. Still, I don’t have the strength to be a strict pacifist. I suppose I am anti-certain wars. If I had been alive during the Civil War, hopefully, I would have been for that war. Then there are those who believe that the experiences and expectations of black soldiers returning from World War II helped spark the Civil Rights Movement of the fifties and sixties. I view World War II as a fight worth fighting. But there were undeniable horrors, too. The bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima were unspeakable tragedies where civilians paid the price of our blood lust for their leaders.
The turning point for me came while in Nicaragua in the mid-80’s. I was traveling with a group of activist from Witness for Peace to the northern area of the country to see firsthand the ravages of Ronald Reagan’s proxy war on the civilian population. As fate would have it, thirty or more civilians, riding in the back of a pick up truck, a common means of transportation in that impoverished and war-torn region, were killed when their vehicle hit a land mine. Our group had to take the same mountain road the following day. I was still a reserve combat engineer captain and I took on the task of preparing the group for the trip, even riding on the top of the truck trying to spot mines, nervous as hell every time we hit a pot hole. When we got to the site of the tragedy we were met by a New York Times reporter who asked if I could ID the land mine. From the fragments, it had all the markings of a US-made anti-tank mine. The Nicaraguan Army didn’t have any tanks. When we got back to Managua, we visited the U.S. Embassy where, to no surprise, we got no answers as to why the U.S. would aid in the killing of civilians. Instead, we were met by a marine sergeant with a riot gun who demanded that we leave the building.
After the Gulf War my flimsy trust in the government diminished even more. It was no secret that the U.S. government supported Saddam Hussein prior to the dispute over those Kuwaiti oil fields and that the U.S. mission was predicated on freeing a country from a dictator only to turn it back over to a king. Kuwait practiced slavery and black soldiers were fighting to protect the practice. I was still in the reserves and could have been called up in the fever of Desert Storm. But I made up my mind not to fight for the interest of a king or emir, Texaco, British Petroleum, the Bushes or their oil buddies. I began to speak out against the war. I was resolved to go to jail, if called up. And when independent reports surfaced about the turkey shoot in the desert and the thousands of Iraqi soldiers that had been killed in retreat on the “highway of death” I was ashamed of this country and the military. I thought that cowboys didn’t shoot folk in the back. By most accounts the massacre was led by General Barry McCafferty. When Bill Clinton appointed McCafferty drug czar I knew that black and brown kids’ lives and freedom were in danger. The dramatic increase in the number of black men incarcerated during Clinton’s term proves the point. In the Reagan-Bush years, the rate grew from 1,156 prisoners per 100,000 black men to about 2,800 per 100,000. In the Clinton years, the rate grew to 3,620 prisoners per every 100,000 black men. The dangers presented by the September 11th acts do not limit themselves to the external threat. War will mean the massive suspension of civil liberties in this country. Bush called the terrorists enemies of freedom. But if Congress approves the so-called anti-terrorism package freedom will be the first casualty of the war. The government strips us of our freedoms of speech, privacy, movement and association. Our rights end up falling like dominos and all of us become suspects especially the already perceived enemy within ? black people. Anyone critical of government and anyone who challenges their conditions or treatment will be targets. The only safe group will be white people. A fellow joked with me about Oklahoma bomber Tim McVeigh. He said, “When McVeigh committed his crime, first they went after the Muslims, then they went after blacks. But when all was said and done and McVeigh was found out, there was no rush to profile white males.”
The Bush Administration is already attempting to changing laws and regulations to make it easier to conduct surveillance and to carryout covert operations against potential opponents of the US and otherwise questionable US policies. We will see the reinstitution of policies such as the Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s and 70s that was aimed at black elected officials, activists or those groups such as the NAACP that offer an opinion different from the majority. The September 11th acts have already used as an excuse to repress and scapegoat Arab-Americans and Muslims. Rather than reducing the threat of terrorism, such actions will eliminate basic civil liberties and strengthen the existing tendency toward a racist and classist police state. In the aftermath of the attacks there is much talk about security. For the person of color, life in American has never been secure. Before the hysteria of MUSLIMS IN OUR MIDST blacks took the brunt of racial profiling. Before those of Arab descent were singled out at airports, black women were the targets.
Then there is the matter of revenge. A friend and I were talking and she said, “If someone murdered a member of my family or a friend and I plotted to murder the murderer, if I were arrested, I would be charged with premeditated murder.” Yet this is the policy that many within the media elite and government hope to adopt. But as a society, how do we hold individuals to “the rule of law” when government won’t respect it.
Those behind the murder of the 6000 plus persons on September 11th should be brought to justice. But justice should follow the rule of law with evidence and an independent court. The U.S. government must not be allowed to adopt a program of foreign and domestic assassination and suspension of basic human rights protections. America citizens must insist that the government adopt a fair policy in the Middle East and around the world to include a change in US. – Israeli policy. We must measure all lives as equally important. White lives and American lives are no more important than those in foreign lands. And, as flying planes into building is an act of terrorism, raining down bombs on civilians in the dead of night is terrorism.
In my lifetime, American foreign policy has been wrong more often than right. By most accounts, American racism abroad has resulted in over 8,000,000 dead. And, until this country becomes what it thinks it is ? a human rights leader — more will die and this country will fall apart as our “new enemy” Osama Bin Laden predicts.
What is the good fight? The good fight is about peace, justice, human equality and an end to undo suffering. The good fight seeks an end to the injustice of exploitation and unearned privilege. It seeks to provide people with the opportunity to fulfill their potential and create their own way. That’s the essence of is freedom. A humane and loving society recognizes the potential of all and is committed to the fulfillment of that potential. CP
Kevin Alexander Gray, a frequent contributer to CounterPunch, is a longtime civil rights organizer who lives in South Carolina.