March 24, 2003
Daring to give voice to some of my own convictions

The following was originally intended to be private correspondence to Senator Byrd.

-----Original Message-----
From: Sabina
Sent: Monday, March 24, 2003 1:32 PM
Subject: Thank you.

Dear Senator Byrd,

I just wanted to take a few minutes to thank you for your willingness to speak out about what is now happening in Iraq. Your courage, and daring to give voice to some of my own convictions and to be very honest, fears, has meant a great deal to me, and to my family in these very difficult days.

I'm not one of your constituents, not a West Virginia resident, but you are in some ways, one of the rare voices that represent me up on the Hill at the moment. I live in suburban Maryland, just a short drive from the Capitol, though much that I value feels to have been banished from our government's halls; I might just as well live thousands of miles away, as I no longer understand nor recognize the face of this America, nor much of this American government.

I grew up alongside Ohio's cornfields and finished high school at a Quaker boarding school in Barnesville, Ohio, just a few miles from the Ohio River, and from Wheeling. Growing up, we would come to Washington, to visit cousins. We would visit the Smithsonian, or Air and Space museums over holiday breaks. I regret that we never took the White House tour, The Peoples' House, but that was way back before even Pennsylvania Ave was closed to traffic.

Ah, but to even call the White House, "The Peoples' House" now seems to be viewed as pure naiveté and to some, begs the question; do I understand terrorism, and the realities of "homeland security"?

Well, I'll let you be a judge of that.

I've studied, and had very limited experience with many forms of terrorism, both foreign and domestic, long before that day in September, the one my hypothetical questioner perhaps bases their 'new understanding' upon. But purely by chance, I happened to be in the wrong, or more aptly since I'm still here to sit and write you, the right place on that particular September day.

My fiancée and I were driving up to New Jersey early in the morning of September 11th. We were driving up to pick up a friend from New York the next morning. Our friend is an independent filmmaker, who had done a short film during featuring the many faces of counter demonstrators to George W. Bush's inauguration here in Washington back in January. We were scheduled to pick her up and then head up to Toronto, Canada for the premier of her film.

Around 3am, we finally came up alongside the New York skyline. New York has always had good memories for me, and finally seeing the airport and the buildings, particularly the World Trade Center after miles of New Jersey always made me smile. In a sense, later I would feel fortunate that I got to see the skyline like that, one last time, without knowing it, in a sense I got to say goodbye.

We checked into our hotel, and tried to get some sleep before our big day tomorrow. Later, as we got up I happened to turn on the television, just in time to watch as the second tower collapse.

We spent the next several hours trying to find out if our filmmaker friend had been on the PATH trains running through the basement of the remains of the World Trade Center, as she had been scheduled to take the PATH trains out to meet us in Jersey that morning. For hours, we didn't know if she was alive or dead. I can't explain what that morning was like, there aren't words to explain it.

Finally we reached her, all three of us sobbing with relief. But she was on the opposite side of Manhattan to us, and there was no way to reach one another.

We left our hotel, and came outside to the sound of fighter jets flying overhead, the only air traffic. The lack of other planes was almost more strange than the presence of the new strange plane sounds. And we saw the plume of smoke rising from the fires and the collapse, and the jet fuel, and the people, and the World Trade Center itself; those towers, that I, like so many other people young tourists had stood atop one summer, astounded at how big the world was and how small I was, as the sun slowly set over the city.

So we stood, overlooking the river, staring at the smoldering remains, then drove away from the city, down highways, with no traffic headed toward the city other than the occasional fire truck from Pennsylvania, because the bridges and tunnels were closed and all access to the city was gone. And we drove out across the Delaware Water Gap, being diverted from the bridge due to a bomb threat. We disappeared into the mountains, to another hotel room where we spent the next few days, crying, glued to the television, and calling friends and relatives. And the people we spoke to, from Ohio, and from the DC area, which had endure the Pentagon crash, and elsewhere in the country, all had a completely different understanding of what had happened in New York, because all they could see were these crashes through the lens of the television coverage.

And we saw it differently, because we had been there ourselves, and we saw the local news coverage from Pennsylvania, of commuters who days later had not come home, and through the local radio coverage, and through just plain listening to people who had seen what to them, was the unimaginable, and part of their and our lives.

Days later, we drove back down to DC by back roads, looking at the sudden sprouting of American Flags, on pickup trucks, on houses, on businesses. And we also saw the anger, handwritten signs vowing revenge, and killing, and an "eye for an eye", and that single-minded rage and desperate need to take their helplessness and fury out on SOMEONE. Anger looking for a place to unload upon.

Finally we got home to the Washington area the evening most of the restrictions were lifted from the city. We drove past our home, without even discussing it, and drove to the Pentagon, a place I've had family ties to, and yes, even a place I have demonstrated at, concerning American policy in Central America under the Reagan administration. We saw the hole torn in the side, and wept again. No matter how deeply I may disagree with some of what takes place within that building, no one 'deserved' September 11th.

So now, I see September 11th, and all the bottled up rage and frustration it has meant to us as a people, the American people, and I see how it is being used as an 'ultimate justification' for anything. But most particularly how it is used as a 'trigger' for plans that have sat on many a think tank's shelf, waiting, until just the right 'go moment' could be found.

I disagreed with the first Gulf war. I worked in preparation with other non-violent activists, studying the works of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and other resisters to injustice. On the day the bombing began I was at an air force base risking arrest for the first and only time in my life.

Later, I lost a friend in that first gulf war. Not a soldier, just a friend from college whose student loan money had fallen to budget cutting, who had joined the army to try to finish college. It was senseless and stupid and sad. And the world lost a great painter that day.

This time around, I'm not in the streets. I oppose this war with every fiber of my being. Yet I recognize, organizers could put a million people in the streets of Washington and it would not do one thing to change the minds of those who control American involvement in this war. We are in what may later be called by historians a "post-protest era". Not that protests have stopped, but in that their effectiveness must be questioned. The world is currently witnessing what may be the largest anti-war movement(s) in history, but to what effect? And that concerns me greatly; because I wonder what effect that has on some increasingly desperate people who aren't being listened to? Let alone belief in democracy and peaceful mechanisms of social change?

Instead, this time, I watch, as every Internet group I'm a part of begins to pull itself apart at the seams. I watch, as any opposition to this sick, tragic, mistake playing out on television screens is falsely labeled "traitorous" and "un-American". As I'm sure you well know, to question is to receive rebuke.

In the black/white rationalization of "you're either for us or against us" American is pitted against American for nothing other than speaking honestly about our own experiences, hopes and aspirations, our desires, our vision of this country's past and future, and our feelings. This war, not just Afghanistan, or Iraq, this war to end all wars/war to bring 'world peace' / war to 'get the terrorists' is bad for the world, and is bad for our country. It's tearing us apart as a people.

I may be one of the few (if you give any credence to polls, and I don't), but I know only one single person in my entire circle of close friends and family who support what America is doing in Iraq. Our reasons for opposing this war are many and varied.

So here I am, reading news articles; as but one of many examples, I pause to contemplate one article which mentions a French woman whose home is spray painted with hateful graffiti. Yet how dare I expect some Americans to behave any differently, when some of the people 'up on the Hill' are busy renaming French fries (which are actually Belgian) to symbolically erase the French from our national midst?

These are sore winners, in need of a scapegoat, for let's face it, these folks "won," we are at war (despite the fact that the French and most of the rest of the world aren't with us). But they can't be satisfied with that, instead they still need someone to blame. For in this war, the "enemy" is too far away. There is little personal satisfaction in watching Iraqis die on TV, however indirectly. So personal means of satisfying this burning hatred are found, sometimes in a spray paint aisle, other times in arson, the stakes continue to rise from there. These people's anger insists on something within arm's reach to land upon, and the rhetoric coming from Bush himself only feeds that neighbor upon neighbor hatred, for if the French (or anyone else for that matter) are not 'for us' they are 'against us', and thus French neighbors become an 'enemy within' to be dealt with by all TRUE AMERICANS.

On the other end of all the "Freedom Fries" rhetorical blustering and noise are real people, who live in houses, whose neighbors help repaint over the filth, yet who end up individually and personally eating the consequences of this poison.

Which ultimately makes me as disappointed in my American neighbors as I am in some portions of my American government. Somewhere in here, both have lost track of the real people on the other end of their desperate search for a target de jour to unload their frustration and anger onto.

Ultimately, I'm not saying 9/11 was THE root cause, though. There are other 'other-ings' or us/them-ings that have been tearing us apart long before 9/11. Being queer, I know a few things about that personally, and have borne those individual consequences alone. This country has unfortunately, to my eye, at least, been headed down dangerous paths for quite some time now. No, September 11th just provided an ultimate 'go-moment' coupled with the examples being set from The Peoples' House on down to the individual level.

Even though I understand this completely, I am equally helpless, in that other than refusing to shut up, and trying to educate, I am in so many ways, truly helpless to do a damn thing about it. As, most likely are you.

And then there are the potential consequences each and every time we do speak out, that something as simple as this letter could somehow come back to bite me at some future date. But as you have often done, I guess some times, it's just more important to tell it like it is and not allow the threat or fear of possibilities to interfere. There are times when it's important to be on record, even if the individual consequences are great, and there is little hope of real change on the other end of such actions.

In light of that, I just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for not giving up.

There's so much more, but obviously, I've written more than enough. Likely more than the aide who may open the mail would read, anyway.

So again, thank you for giving whatever voice you can, to people like myself, who feel increasingly isolated, helpless, and silenced day by day.

- Sabina Kneisly

Posted by Lauren Sabina Kneisly at March 24, 2003 11:17 PM | TrackBack
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