The Best and Worst of America

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001 I was in Washington D.C. after arriving from Atlanta, Georgia the evening of September 10. I was there for an agriculture meeting. On that fateful day I met colleagues from Arkansas and South Carolina for a breakfast meeting at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill. It was to be the start of a daylong session on sustainable agriculture with agriculture advocates and members of Congress. As we walked into Rayburn on the morning of 9/11 our world was transformed. It was a time when the best and worst in America rose to the surface.

Coming into Rayburn we passed guards whose eyes were transfixed on the television. We asked what was happening. “A plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York” they said. We thought it was a fluke–an error of some sort by a misguided plane. We looked briefly at the television and then continued to the cafeteria in the basement where we met two of our friends. There were not a lot of people in the cafeteria at the time, but those who were there already seemed rather bleak. People were on their cell phones and not looking directly at anyone. Then we heard that the second world trade tower had been struck and we knew that something orchestrated and sinister was at play. I called my son in Atlanta to ask what he knew and he couldn’t provide additional information at that point except that both towers had been attacked. (It was at 8:46 AM that American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston Logan Airport crashed into the North Tower and at 9:03 AM that United Airlines Flight 175 also from Logan flew into the South Tower.)

At the table next to ours four men, who I assumed were civil servants (one said he was an attorney), were suddenly talking anxiously and I asked them about what. They said they’d heard that the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (close to the White House on 17th Street) that houses the Vice President’s office had been hit and was on fire. They sounded convincing. We found out later that this, in fact, was a rumor. I wondered where they got this misleading information! Ultimately, we learned there was a hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark International headed either for the White House or Capitol Hill. It was downed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 AM due either to a passenger revolt or, as speculated by some, shot down by the U.S. Air Force under orders from Dick Cheney. But how, I wondered, did these fellows know in advance what seemed a notion of the scheme? I still wonder about this. At 9:37 AM, the western side of the Pentagon was also attacked that day by the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 from Washington Dulles.

Suddenly there was an announcement in the cafeteria that Rayburn was being evacuated. We joined the throng of employees who rushed out of Rayburn and the surrounding buildings. A few hundred yards from Rayburn we heard what sounded like a bomb – everyone around me bolted and then ran faster from the scene. I looked back to see that the sound was likely from military jets that were already flying over the city and breaking the sound barrier as they flew close to the buildings.

Everyone seemed to be leaving Capitol Hill. As we walked rather frantically away we met residents and employees who, wisely, wanted to be a considerable distance from the U.S. government buildings. Finally, the five of us stopped at a pub blocks away from Rayburn where, for a few hours, we drank, talked, watched television and played pool. What else is there to do in a crisis? While there I called Attorney J.L. Chestnut in Alabama to suggest that we could expect the U.S. government would become more fascistic, basically a war on civil liberties, in response to this attack. He agreed. Ultimately, we ended up at the Irish pub across from the Union Station where we and everyone else in Washington, it seemed, were crowded in to eat and discuss the tragic loss of life in New York and what it all meant. Nobody knew, of course.

Then the post 9/11 week began. Planes in the U.S. were grounded for a week. I stayed with friends while trying find a way back to Atlanta. When tiring of exploring my exit options, I began visiting countless progressive non-governmental and religious organizations in Washington–primarily in the Methodist Building across from the Supreme Court. I wanted to read organizational statements about the week’s events. I talked briefly with David Corn, The Nation’s Washington correspondent. He was visibly upset about the attacks but couldn’t offer much except his anger. I guess I expected more. On the whole the Methodists, Catholics and other groups were calling for restraint rather than a violent response, which they expected from a heavily armed U.S. with wounded pride. I started interviewing folks at Union Station and in other parts of the city to hear what they were thinking/feeling at the time. People couldn’t offer much. It was too soon and everyone seemed to be struggling to make sense of it all. I drove by the Pentagon to observe the damage first hand. I couldn’t get close, however, as the area was fenced in. I could only drive by in a taxi, but from a distance the gaping hole was visible. I talked with people in some of the local restaurants a short distance from the Pentagon who told me they had heard the low flying plane before it flew into the Pentagon

Finally, toward the end of the week the planes were still grounded and Greyhound buses were filled to the brim but I managed to get a seat on an Amtrak train to Atlanta. So here I was on Saturday, September 15 headed to Atlanta with other southern refugees who’d been stranded in Washington, New York and Boston and headed for points South. The stories started to flow from everyone around me. Some of the New York refugees were direct witnesses of the tragedy and had helped evacuees from the Twin Towers; one woman from South Carolina said she’d witnessed the appalling deaths of people jumping from the Towers. Most passengers, however, were simply stunned by the events the past week. I overheard one man say that we could expect an impressive and aggressive response from the United States–but I wondered at the time where, against whom?

The U.S. response began on October 7, 2001 when the U.S. and Britain began their bombing attack against Afghanistan–everyone tragically abuses and victimizes Afghanistan, both the east and the west. Little did I think that within two years we would also witness the utter destruction of the beautiful ancient Baghdad and the deaths of thousands of Iraqis (77,272 according the independent Iraq Body Count) and of thousands of American youth (3,733 – Iraq Body Count). What a catastrophe of yet untold proportions! Reliable figures of Iraqi losses are not available through U.S. records–as General Tommy Franks, who led the U.S. invasion, said, “We don’t do body counts.” If we talk about American “hubris” Franks’ comment much less the policy itself has to be front and center!

Once back in Atlanta, I wrote a letter to friends and relatives about my experience in Washington on 9/11 and attempted to place the events that week in context. Not as a justification for violence but rather to understand that it should not be surprising to Americans if the aggressive and arrogant U.S. policies in Asia, South America and in the Middle East would be met with resistance and reactions. How could it be otherwise? And furthermore, since after World War II the U.S. has tragically meddled in the Middle East – particularly in the oil producing countries of Iran and Iraq–to make sure they had dictators who could be manipulated (i.e. Saddam Hussein, the Shah of Iran) and this sadly continues. One of my relatives immediately responded by calling me a traitor–I used the opportunity to elaborate further on it all.

But never has there been found anything to link Iraq with the 9/11 incident. In a twisted fashion, Iraqis are now blamed by the U.S. for destabilization of their own country that was, in fact, caused by the U.S. invasion and historic manipulation by the west. What we are witnessing is a classic “blame the victim” scenario.

When Bush said he was going after terrorists, I thought “great–maybe he’ll consider going after the Ku Klux Klan”. It, in fact, has done far more on-going damage to Americans since it’s founding after the Civil War in 1865 than any entity in the Middle East.

Then began the next phase of the 9/11-post period. For the first 6 months or so there was that feel of oppressive stagnation that seems to envelope the very air we breathe prior to war. As the Bush administration began rattling its sabers against Iraq and false accusations began to fly about weapons of mass destruction and other lies in much of 2002, people were afraid to speak out. It was a God and Country mindset, which is usually a time in America with corresponding racism on the rise. I frequently witnessed during this period a white fellow with a huge confederate flag waving on the back of his truck as he would weave in and out the black residential area of East Point, Georgia that I drive through almost every day.

Then finally in the summer of 2002 in Atlanta’s rather sedate Druid Hills neighborhood there was a sign that read “Say NO to War”–it lasted for a week. It was the first public display I’d seen. In the latter part of 2002, thanks to the local Quaker meeting, we began to see signs stating, “War is Not the Answer” around the cities of Atlanta and Decatur. One of my friends in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland area who insisted on keeping the sign in her yard replaced it about four times, as people kept destroying it while walking by her house. She was and remains determined.

On February 5, 2003 Colin Powell made his infamous argument for war against Iraq in a sea of lies at the United Nations–lies that Iraq held caches of weapons of mass destruction. He later said the speech was a “blot” on his record. Indeed!

And while Powell spoke, Pablo Picasso’s painting “Guernica” in the background was shrouded, apparently at the request of the Bush administration. Guernica, in the Basque area of Spain, was bombed relentlessly on April 26, 1937 by 24 Nazi bombers during the Spanish Civil War. Guernica was the most ancient of Basque towns and center of Basque culture. It was utterly destroyed. The bombers also flew low to kill, with machine guns, people who took refuge in fields. The London Times said of the attack “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history.” As Picasso said in Paris one week after the bombing “In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”

The Guernica in the United Nations is a tapestry of Picasso’s work and placed there as a statement of the barbarity of war. The hypocrisy of it being covered, as Powell spoke of war and lied to the world, speaks for itself.

As the pressure kept building and while Bush was clearly preparing for pre-emptive war against Iraq – a country that did nothing to us – impressively large demonstrations against the likely invasion took place all over the world. In fact, on the weekend of February 15 and 16, 2003 there were estimates of anywhere from 8 million to 30 million protesters against war in Iraq in approximately 800 cities. It was considered the largest anti-war rally in history. What amazed me is that Bush, his cohorts and the unquestioning and complicit major media in the U.S. didn’t seem to blink an eye to the millions of protestors at home and abroad.

In fact, in a March 13, 2003 editorial, the Black Commentator wrote, “White America sees the world through the eyes of the mass murderer and slaveholder. Were it not so, there would not exist the grotesque disconnect between white American public opinion and the opinions of mankind, shared generally by Black America. Bush would not be possible.”

A couple of days prior to the March 20, 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq I called Reverend Joseph Lowery, the renowned civil rights leader and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference here in Atlanta, to ask if he would send a last minute letter to the Reverend Billy Graham who Bush does apparently listen to–or so we assumed. He agreed to it. So we did exactly that. We first called Graham’s assistant to see if he would deliver a letter to Graham and he said he would. We then drafted a letter and faxed it.

During the Vietnam War Lowery had contacted Graham to alert him about the increasing racism during that period. Sometime later after his appeal to Graham, Lowery said the Reverend came to visit him because Lowery had criticized his lack of response. Nothing positive came out of the visit.

From my own experience, I’ve found that conservative southern white pastors tend not to focus on the social gospel. There is a distinction to be drawn between being evangelical and applying the social gospel of seeking justice for the poor and the exploited. Even now after centuries of slavery, the advent of Jim Crow in the south and racism as its legacy, these pastors will not rock the boat. Unfortunately, they also see the world the “through the eyes of the mass murderer and slaveholder.”

Graham was not helpful during the Vietnam era and Lowery was rather skeptical about anything he might do now. In any case, in the 2003 letter Reverend Lowery essentially asked Graham to appeal to Bush to not go to war. He wrote that war would lead only to the senseless loss of life and a spiral of violence, and that serious and genuine diplomacy was needed. We assume Graham’s assistant gave the letter to him, but Lowery never heard back from the Reverend. So all of this was to no avail, but we tried.

HEATHER GRAY produces “Just Peace” on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She can be reached at

Heather Gray is a writer and radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia and has also lived in Canada, Australia, Singapore, briefly in the Philippines and has traveled in southern Africa. For 24 years she has worked in support of Black farmer issues and in cooperative economic development in the rural South. She holds degrees in anthropology and sociology. She can be reached at