Scenes and voices as Austin reacts to September 11
My Living Room, Sept. 19, 8pm A man, a couch, a beer, and, of course, the TV. Flickering across the screen are a panel of D.C.-based journalists discussing how the government is reacting to the World Trade Center attack. Poised, coifed, and articulate, they banter about war, about such illuminating topics as whether the word itself is being used as a verb or a metaphor, or whether it shall be bombs or Green Berets? All agree that Washington has never been so civilized, nor this president so presidential.
With increasing frequency, the people on TV gaze at their own TV, which hovers above them like a beacon. There, beamed from Seattle, hovers the head of NPR correspondent Elizabeth Arnold. She has spent the last week on the street with her microphone and has been invited to the program to speak for the people. Americans, she assures the panel, are expressing a feeling of renewed compassion and community, not anger. The magnitude of this tragedy, she says, has made people think twice about mass destruction.
The members of the panel, who themselves apparently don't know any "real people," react to her comments with surprise and unbridled curiosity. One by one the experts defer their questions to the giant TV and listen as Arnold channels America. Her America.
Tears well up in the eyes of Zein Al Jundi, owner of the Arabic Bazaar, when she talks about the current focus on the Arab world. "Islamic fundamentalism and terror are this much a part of the Middle East," she says, her thumb and forefinger forming a tight circle. "The beauty and depth of our culture are ..." and her arms fan a broad circle in the air, swinging past shelves of elaborately patterned rawhide lamps, silk scarves, and inlayed crosses imported from Damascus. Al Jundi, a Syrian Christian, is Austin's self-designated ambassador of secular Arabic culture. She was planning to celebrate that culture with Arabic dancing and singing at the grand opening of her Bazaar on 51st and Duval last Saturday (now rescheduled for Oct. 6). Instead, she has spent the last week awash in emotions.
Arabic Bazaar, Sept. 20, Noon
"When I saw the towers collapse, all I could think was 'My God,'" she says, one hand clasped over her heart. "It brought back memories I would just as soon forget -- the days when Islamic fundamentalists were active in Syria. I remember one bomb that killed hundreds at the university in Damascus. In many ways the reaction among Syrians was so similar. Still, I never could have imagined something on the scale of last Tuesday.
"I really can't say enough about how wonderful the Austin community has been," she continues. "People have been calling, e-mailing, and shopping at the store to show support. But then, a week after the tragedy, I received a phone call telling me that I would pay for last week's attack. He said that I should I consider myself 'fairly warned.' Now I am not sure what to feel. It's only one malicious person out of the hundreds who are expressing kindness, but it only takes one lunatic. ... It's hard not to think, what did he mean by 'fair warning?'"
Listening intently from across the counter is blond-haired and blue-eyed Lauren Hendley, a UT art student. She had dropped into the bazaar to shop but ended up staying for two hours to hear what Al Jundi had to say. "Talking with you makes me realize that we all have so much in common," she says. "It makes me shudder to think that the government might respond by bombing cities filled with innocent people. That's not the answer."
With the earnest minions of the International Socialist Organization and a wide assortment of proud-to-be-freaky people, the anti-war rally was a gathering of the usual dissenters. The mood, however, was entirely different from when the same folks had shown up for the post-election protests. Gone are the festive rage and call-and-response chanting, and gone are the freestyle megaphone rants and clashes with Bush supporters. Instead, demonstrators march solemnly around the capitol, and the slow beating of a drum gives rhythm to the gentle hum of conversation. Photographer Alan Pogue, a Vietnam veteran and anti-war activist, spoke before the march, stressing the need for citizens to arm themselves -- with information. For an alternative to the mainstream media, he recommended www.commondreams.org.
Austin Against War Rally The Capitol, Sept. 20, 5:30pm
Chris Womack, UT student and Texas Observer intern, hovers near the back of the crowd with his hands in his pockets. He admits being as shocked by his own response on the 11th as he was by the tragedy itself. "When I watched the towers come crashing down, my immediate reaction was oddly knee-jerk," he recalls. "In that moment, I would have supported major military action. But now I've had some time to reflect, and it's clear that the biggest, fastest response would only make things worse."
His friend Connor Hopkins, activist and bartender, agrees. "There is a difference between justice and revenge," he says. "Folks like to point at us and say that we are just protesting, that we don't offer a solution. That may be true, but going to war isn't a solution either."
"I would answer the call for duty in a second if I could. As it is, I'd be more trouble than I'm worth ..."
-- Roger Gaby, Air Force, Vietnam Veteran,
80% disabled from Agent Orange poisoning.
"When I was in Vietnam, we burned down bamboo huts because we didn't have any choice. It was impossible to tell the difference between a Viet Cong soldier and a civilian -- they all wore black pajamas. But we had journalists following us, taking pictures of everything we did, and the public didn't have the stomach for that. Well, they better have the stomach this time, because bin Laden and his followers aren't going to be wearing uniforms either, and some innocent turban-wearers are going to be killed in the process."
-- Ray Carlin, Army, Vietnam Veteran
A sweet country ballad, the kind usually reserved for lost love, fills the cool night breeze drifting through the crowd assembled on the Capitol steps. The song, "I Will Remember You," is dedicated to the firefighters who the week before were so unceremoniously buried under thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Silhouetted against a huge, brightly lit flag stand Austin's own firefighters in military formation, their eyes set stoically on the horizon. Behind them, the silent crowd shines flashlights in remembrance (candles are not allowed on the Capitol grounds), their beams sweeping past long, still faces and the flutter of red, white, and blue flags held high. "Most of the guys just wish they could be in New York to help," says Lee Williams, a lieutenant on Engine 4. "The fire department really is a brotherhood."
Firefighters Memorial The Capitol, Sept. 21, 7:30pm
His wife, Liz Williams, says watching the disaster unfold made it hit home how dangerous her husband's job is. "I know that Lee wouldn't have thought twice before running into the buildings to save someone," she says. "And my son is in the Marines as well. I really can't think about it too much, or it makes me feel sick."
Taylor Skaar, a psychotherapist, came out to show her support for the country -- something she hasn't done for 40 years. "I was in my 20s when JFK was shot," she says, her blue eyes red from crying. "I lost a sense of faith in my country that I didn't get back until last Tuesday. Before then, I would never have been at a rally like this. But that attack really puts things in perspective -- yeah, we're not perfect, but, dammit, they better keep their hands off us. I'm a liberal Democrat -- and I worry about Bush acting like a cowboy -- but I'm not going to just switch the channel when our president speaks to us anymore."
Two 9-year-old girls, Kelly Remmert and Ashley Saadeh, run around the Capitol monuments waving flags gleefully. Ashley's mother, Kathy, says that Ashley, too young to comprehend the magnitude of recent events, has been remarkably calm when compared to the adults in her life. "We went to church on the day of remembrance and prayer," she says. "I prayed out loud with Ashley, because I wanted her to understand what was happening. And then I started to cry, and Ashley reached out, grabbed my hand and said, 'Don't worry mom, we're safe here.'"
"Before last Tuesday, I have always advocated a libertarian perspective -- you know, the rugged Texan who wants less government in our lives. But now, I think we might have to sacrifice certain civil liberties. This especially applies to the rights accorded non-citizens, and here I am referring to Arab nationals from countries that harbor terrorists. I would support a moratorium on immigration from those countries. And while I don't support racial profiling of American citizens, I think that we may have to look closer at Arab nationals living inside our borders."
-- Marc Levin, UT law student and Vice-Chairman of the Young Conservatives of Texas
"Restricting immigration rarely stops well-funded individuals, like bin Laden's recruits, from entering the country. Instead, many legitimate refugees from the Arab world, people who are victims of the same organizations we fear, suffer simply because of their nationality. This event should help us empathize with people who have been hurt for decades by these very same organizations that struck last week."
-- Erin Goodison, Researcher, Human Rights Documentation Exchange
When Rev. Sterling Lands II puts down his guitar and approaches the pulpit, the mood at the Greater Calvary Baptist Church perceptibly shifts from joyous revelry to somber introspection. Lands pauses for a moment, his hands tightly gripping the front of the wooden podium, and lets the weight of his presence sink in. "We are all affected by the tragedy on the 11th," he begins. "But don't let that make us distracted ..." Within moments he is laying out a chronology of American tragedies, from the Civil War to Kent State, and reminding the crowd that life has been difficult for every generation. As his voice gathers momentum, he begins to sweat, his shaved head gathering a glistening luminescence.
Greater Calvary Baptist Church
Sunday, Sept. 23, Noon
"Worrying never solved anything," he bellows in a deep baritone. "God alone can bring security." As his sermon progresses, the rhythmic cadences of his voice grow quicker and more fevered, and the amens from the crowd louder and more assured. Just when it seems that his intensity must be reaching a breaking point, Lands' hoarse voice is lifted by the powerful house band and the 20-strong Anointed Voices gospel choir. "I was down, and God heard my cry," he sings while the women in the crowd rise and clap. "He lifted my heavy load, turned my misery into ministry, my trial into triumph ..."
After the service, congregant Maurice Youmans commented that the church has helped him stave off the fear affecting many of his friends. "I'm not worried," he says, "because God is ultimately in control. I leave my fate in his hands. If something happens to me here in Austin, well, then I guess you will have to take my statement up there in heaven."
Donna Banks says that hearing the president talk about war reminded her of when she was sent to Kuwait to fight in the Gulf War. "At that time, I had to leave my six-month-old son with my mother," she remembers. "This time, I'm just so glad I'm able to stay here with my family. It's really made me thankful for what I have, and at the same time I'm so sad for all the people who lost their loved ones."
"On the morning of the 11th, I was in my car on my way to speak at a funeral in Longview, Texas," says Rev. Lands in his office after the service. "And someone called me and told me that 'America is under siege.' My response was, 'Give me a break.' By the time I got to the funeral, the full magnitude of the event had sunk in. Usually there is a heaviness at funerals. This time there was an air of thankfulness that the departed loved one would not have to face the challenges this country will be going through.
"Those challenges will be intense," he continues. "I believe in nonviolence, and I think it's dangerous to be locked in the mindset of revenge and retribution. At the same time, it's dangerous to operate in a state of passivity. The direction of our country has been changed forever."