Before the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, I had been scheduled to speak to the Environmental Grantmakers Association on the impact of money in politics, one of my regular beats in journalism. When I went on the air with a daily broadcast after 9/11, I thought of canceling the speech, then five weeks away; it just didn’t seem timely to talk about money and politics while the country was still in mourning. But I began to notice some items in the news that struck me as especially repugnant amid all the grief.
In Washington, where environmentalists and other public-interest advocates had suspended normal political activities, corporate lobbyists were suddenly mounting a full-court press for special favors at taxpayer expense. There was no black crepe draped on the windows of K Street – the predatory epicenter of Washington; inside, visions of newfound gold danced in the heads of lobbyists. And in corporate suites across the country CEOs were waking up to the prospect of a bonanza born of tragedy.
Within two weeks of 9/11 the business press was telling of corporate directors rushing to give bargain-priced stock options to their top executives. The Wall Street Journal would later piece the whole story together: stocks had fallen sharply after the attacks, reaching a low on Sept. 21; families of 9/11 victims were still waiting for some piece of flesh or bone to confirm the loss of a loved one; soldiers were loading their gear for deployment to Afghanistan; and corporate executives were too busy counting their profits to notice. As stock options grant executives the right to buy shares at that low price for years to come, the lower the price when options are awarded, the more lucrative they are. “Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves,” goes an Italian proverb. Translated to English, it reads: “Grab the loot and run.” Some CEOs didn’t need reminding.
During the last days of September, 511 top executives at 186 companies gobbled up stock-option grants — more than twice as many as in comparable periods in recent years. Almost 100 companies that did not regularly grant stock options in September now did so. One company — Teradyne — had begun laying off employees just hours before the terrorists struck; the chairman, nonetheless, helped himself to 602,589 options just two weeks later, and when Journal reporters wanted to ask about it, his spokesman said the CEO wouldn’t be available for an interview because “I don’t want to put him in the position of answering how does he feel about potentially benefiting from the 9/11 tragedy.”
By the time of this speech, President Bush had already urged us to prove our patriotism by going shopping. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani went on television to say we should “step up to the plate right now and show the strength of the American economy.” Giuliani himself would soon be hauling in a fortune exploiting his newfound celebrity to advise corporations on how to protect against terrorism. And in Washington the marionettes of the military-industrial-security complex salivated at the prospect of a windfall rising from the smoldering ruins. Grief would prove no match for greed. I decided not to cancel the speech.
Keynote address to the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Brainerd, Minnesota, Oct. 16, 2001
This isn’t the speech I expected to give today. I intended something else.
For several years I’ve been taking every possible opportunity to talk about the soul of democracy. “Something is deeply wrong with politics today,” I told anyone who would listen. And I wasn’t referring to the partisan mudslinging, or the negative TV ads, the excessive polling or the empty campaigns. I was talking about something deeper, something troubling at the core of politics. The soul of democracy – government of, by and for the people – has been drowning in a rising tide of money contributed by a narrow, unrepresentative elite that has betrayed Abraham Lincoln’s vision of self-government.
This, to me, is the big political story of the last quarter-century, and I started reporting it as a journalist in the late ’70s with the first television documentary about political action committees. I intended to talk about this today – about the soul of democracy – and then connect it to my television efforts and your environmental work. That was my intention. That’s the speech I was working on six weeks ago. Before 9/11.
We’ve all been rocked on our heels by what happened. We have been reminded that while the clock and the calendar make it seem as if our lives unfold hour by hour, day by day, our passage is marked by events – of celebration and crisis. We share those in common. They create the memories which make us a people, a nation with a history.
Pearl Harbor was that event for my parents’ generation. It changed their world, as it changed them. They never forgot the moment they heard the news. For my generation it was the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the dogs and fire hoses in Alabama. Those events broke our hearts.
For this present generation, that moment will be Sept. 11, 2001. We will never forget it. In one sense, this is what terrorists intend. Terrorists don’t want to own our land, wealth, monuments, buildings, fields, or streams. They’re not after tangible property. Sure, they aim to annihilate the targets they strike. But their real goal is to get inside our heads, our psyche and to deprive us – the survivors – of peace of mind, of trust, of faith, to prevent us from believing again in a world of mercy, justice and love, or working to bring that better world to pass.
This is their real target, to turn our imaginations into private Afghanistans, where they can rule by fear. Once they possess us, they are hard to exorcise.
This summer our daughter and son-in-law adopted a baby boy. On Sept. 11, our son-in-law passed through the shadow of the World Trade Center to his office up the block. He got there in time to see the eruption of fire and smoke. He saw the falling bodies. He saw the people jumping to their deaths. His building was evacuated and for long awful moments he couldn’t reach his wife, our daughter, to say he was okay. She was in agony until he finally got through – and even then he couldn’t get home to his family until the next morning. It took him several days fully to get his legs back. Now, in a matter-of-fact voice, our daughter tells us how she often lies awake at night, wondering where and when it might happen again, going to the computer at 3 in the morning – her baby asleep in the next room – to check out what she can about bioterrorism, germ warfare, anthrax and the vulnerability of children. Beyond the carnage left by the sneak attack, terrorists create another kind of havoc, invading and despoiling a new mother’s deepest space, holding her imagination hostage to the most dreadful possibilities.
The building where my wife and I produce our television programs is in midtown Manhattan, just over a mile from Ground Zero. It was evacuated immediately after the disaster, although the two of us remained with other colleagues to help keep the station on the air. Our building was evacuated again late in the evening a day later because of a bomb scare at the nearby Empire State Building. We had just ended a live broadcast for PBS when the security officers swept through and ordered everyone out of the building. As we were making our way down the stairs I took Judith’s arm and was suddenly struck by the thought: is this the last time I’ll touch her? Could our marriage of almost 50 years end here, on this dim and bare staircase? I ejected the thought forcibly from my mind; like a bouncer removing a rude intruder, I shoved it out of my consciousness by sheer force of will. But in the first hours of morning, the specter crept back.
Returning from Washington on the train last week, I looked up and for the first time in days saw a plane in the sky. And then another, and another – and every plane I saw invoked unwelcome images and terrifying thoughts. Unwelcome images, terrifying thoughts – embedded in our heads by terrorists.
I wish I could find the wisdom in this. But wisdom is a very elusive thing. Someone told me once that we often have the experience but miss the wisdom. Wisdom comes, if at all, slowly, painfully, and only after deep reflection. Perhaps when we gather next year the wisdom will have arranged itself like the colors of a kaleidoscope, and we will look back on September 11 and see it differently. But I haven’t been ready for reflection. I have wanted to stay busy, on the go, or on the run, perhaps, from the need to cope with the reality that just a few subway stops south of where I get off at Penn Station in midtown Manhattan, three thousand people died in a matter of minutes. One minute they’re pulling off their jackets, sipping their coffee, adjusting the picture of a child or sweetheart or spouse in a frame on their desk, booting up their computer – and in the next, their world ends.
Practically every day The New York Times has been running compelling profiles of the dead and missing, and I’ve been keeping them. Not out of some macabre desire to stare at death, but to see if I might recognize a face, a name, some old acquaintance, a former colleague, even a stranger I might have seen occasionally on the subway or street. That was my original purpose. But as the file has grown I realize what an amazing montage it is of life, a portrait of the America those terrorists wanted to shatter. I study each little story for its contribution to the mosaic of my country, its particular revelation about the nature of democracy, the people with whom we share it.
Ivhan Luis Carpio Bautista: It was his birthday, and he had the day off from Windows on the World, the restaurant high atop the World Trade Center. But back home in Peru his family depended on Luis for the money he had been sending them since he arrived in New York two years ago speaking only Spanish, and there was the tuition he would soon be paying to study at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. So on the 11th of September Luis Bautista was putting in overtime. He was 24.
William Steckman: For 35 of his 56 years he took care of NBC’s transmitter at One World Trade Center, working the night shift because it let him spend time during the day with his five children and to fix things up around the house. His shift ended at 6 a.m. but this morning his boss asked him to stay on to help install some new equipment, and William Steckman said sure.
Elizabeth Holmes: She lived in Harlem with her son and jogged every morning around Central Park where I often go walking, and I have been wondering if Elizabeth Holmes and I perhaps crossed paths some morning. I figure we were kindred souls; she too, was a Baptist, and sang in the choir at the Canaan Baptist church. She was expecting a ring from her fiancé at Christmas.
Linda Luzzicone and Ralph Gerhardt: They were planning their wedding, too. They had their parents come to New York in August to meet for the first time and talk about the plans. They had discovered each other in nearby cubicles on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center and fell in love. They were working there when the terrorists struck.
Mon Gjonbalaj: He came here from Albania. Because his name was hard to pronounce his friends called him by the Cajun “Jambalay” and he grew to like it. He lived with his three sons in the Bronx and was to have retired when he turned 65 last year, but he was so attached to the building and so enjoyed the company of the other janitors that he often showed up an hour before work just to shoot the bull. In my mind’s eye I can see him that morning, horsing around with his buddies.
Fred Scheffold: He liked his job, too – Chief of the 12th battalion of firefighters in Harlem. He loved his men. But he never told his daughters in the suburbs about the bad stuff in all the fires he had fought over the years. He didn’t want to worry them. This morning, his shift had just ended and he was starting home when the alarm rang. He jumped into the truck with the others and at One World Trade Center he pushed through the crowds to the staircase heading for the top. The last time anyone saw him alive he was heading for the top. As hundreds poured past him going down, Fred Scheffold just kept going up through the flames and smoke.
Now you know why I can’t give the speech I was working on. Talking about my work in television would be too parochial. And what’s happened since the attacks would seem to put the lie to my fears about the soul of democracy. Americans rallied together in a way that I cannot remember since World War Two. In real and instinctive ways we have felt touched – singed – by the fires that brought down those buildings, even those of us who did not directly lose a loved one. Great and ordinary alike, we have been humbled by a renewed sense of our common mortality. Those planes the terrorists turned into suicide bombers cut through a complete cross-section of America – stockbrokers and dishwashers, bankers and secretaries, lawyers and janitors, Hollywood producers and new immigrants, urbanites and suburbanites alike. One community near where I live in New Jersey lost 23 residents. A single church near our home lost eleven members of the congregation. Eighty nations are represented among the dead. This catastrophe has reminded us of a basic truth at the heart of our democracy: no matter our wealth or status or faith, we are all equal before the law, in the voting booth, and when death rains down from the sky.
We have also been reminded that despite years of scandals and political corruption, despite the stream of stories of personal greed and lobbyists scamming the treasury, despite the retreat from the public sphere and the race toward private privilege, despite squalor for the poor and gated communities for the rich, we have been reminded that Americans have not yet given up on the idea of “We, the People.” They have refused to accept the notion, promoted so diligently by right-wingers, that government – the public service – should be shrunk to a size where they can drown it in the bathtub, as Grover Norquist said is their goal. These right-wingers teamed up after 9/11 with deep-pocket bankers to stop the United States from cracking down on terrorist money havens. As TIME Magazine reports, 30 industrial nations were ready to tighten the screws on offshore financial centers whose banks have the potential to hide and often help launder billions of dollars for drug cartels, global crime syndicates – not to mention groups like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization. Not all off-shore money is linked to crime or terrorism; much of it comes from wealthy people who are hiding money to avoid taxation. And right-wingers believe in nothing if not in avoiding taxation. So they and the bankers’ lobbyists went to work to stop the American government from participating in the crackdown on dirty money, arguing that closing down tax havens in effect leads to higher taxes on the people trying to hide their money. The president of the Heritage Foundation spent an hour, according to The New York Times, with Treasury Secretary O’Neill and Texas bankers pulled their strings at the White House, and presto! the Bush administration pulled out of the international campaign against tax havens.
How about that for patriotism? Better terrorists get their dirty money than tax cheaters be prevented from hiding their money. And this from people who wrap themselves in the flag and sing “The Star Spangled Banner” with gusto. H.L. Mencken got it right when he said that when you hear some men talk about their love of country, it’s a sign they expect to be paid for it.
But today’s heroes are public servants. Those brave firefighters and policemen and Port Authority workers and emergency rescue personnel were public employees all, most of them drawing a modest middle-class income for extremely dangerous work. They have caught our imaginations not only for their heroic deeds but because we know so many people like them, people we took for granted. For once, our TV screens have been filled with the modest declarations of average Americans coming to each other’s aid.
I find this thrilling and sobering. It could offer a new beginning, a renewal of civil values that could leave our society stronger and more together than ever, working on common goals for the public good. More than a decade ago, the playwright Tony Kushner wrote: “There are moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time. People and the world they’re living in can be utterly transformed, either for the good or the bad, or some mixture of the two.”
This is such a moment, and it could go either way. Here’s one sighting. In the wake of Sept. 11, there’s been a heartening change in how Americans view their government. For the first time in more than 30 years a majority of people say we trust the federal government to do the right thing “just about always” or at least “most of the time.” It’s as if the clock has been rolled back to the early ’60s, before Vietnam and Watergate took such a toll on the gross national psychology. This newfound hope for public collaboration is based in part on how people view what the government has done in response to the attacks. President Bush acted with commendable resolve and restraint in those early days. But this is a case where yet again the people are ahead of the politicians. They’re expressing greater faith in government right now because the long-standing gap between our ruling elites and ordinary citizens has seemingly disappeared. To most Americans, government right now doesn’t mean a faceless bureaucrat or a politician auctioning access to the highest bidder. It means a courageous rescuer or brave soldier. Instead of representatives spending their evenings clinking glasses with fat cats, they are out walking among the wounded. In Washington it seemed momentarily possible that the political class had been jolted out of old habits. Some old partisan rivalries and arguments fell by the wayside as our representatives acted decisively on a fund to rebuild New York. Adversaries like Dennis Hastert and Dick Gephardt were linking arms. There was even a 10-day moratorium on political fundraisers. I was beginning to be optimistic that the mercenary culture of Washington might finally be on its knees in repentance.
Alas, it was not to be. There are other sightings to report. It didn’t take long for the war time opportunists – the mercenaries of Washington, the lobbyists, lawyers and political fundraisers – to crawl out of their offices on K Street to grab what they can for their clients. While in New York we are still attending memorial services for firemen and police, while everywhere Americans’ cheeks are still stained with tears, while the president calls for patriotism, prayers and piety, the predators of Washington are up to their old tricks in the pursuit of private plunder at public expense. In the wake of this awful tragedy wrought by terrorism, they are cashing in.
How would they honor the thousands of people who died in the attacks? How do they propose to fight the long and costly campaign America must now undertake against terrorists?
Why, restore the three-martini lunch – surely that will strike fear in the heart of Osama bin Laden! You think I’m kidding, but bringing back the deductible lunch is one of the proposals on the table in Washington right now in the aftermath of 9/11. There are members of Congress who believe you should sacrifice in this time of crisis by paying for lobbyists’ long lunches.
And cut capital gains for the wealthy, naturally – that’s America’s patriotic duty, too. And while we’re at it, don’t forget to eliminate the Corporate Alternative Minimum Tax, enacted fifteen years ago to prevent corporations from taking so many credits and deductions that they owed little if any taxes. But don’t just repeal their minimum tax; give those corporations a refund for all the minimum tax they have ever been assessed. You look incredulous. But these proposals are being pushed hard in Washington right now in an effort to exploit the trauma of 9/11.
What else can America do to strike at the terrorists? Why, slip in a special tax break for poor General Electric while everyone’s distracted, and torpedo the recent order to clean the Hudson River of PCBs. Don’t worry about NBC, CNBC or MSNBC reporting it; they’re all in the GE family.
It’s time for Churchillian courage, we’re told. So how would the policies-that-be assure that future generations will look back and say, “This was their finest hour?” That’s easy. Give coal producers more freedom to pollute. Shovel generous tax breaks to those giant energy companies. Open the Alaskan wilderness to drilling. And while the red, white and blue wave at half-mast over the land of the free and the home of the brave – why, give the president the power to discard open debate and the rule-of-law concerning controversial trade agreements, and set up secret tribunals to run roughshod over local communities trying to protect their environment and their health. It’s happening as we meet.
If I sound a little bitter about this, I am. The president rightly appeals every day for sacrifice. But to these mercenaries sacrifice is for suckers. I am angry, yes, but my sadness is greater than the anger. Our business and political class owes us better than this. They’re on top. If ever they were going to put patriotism over profits, if ever they were going to practice the magnanimity of winners, this was the moment. To hide now behind the flag while ripping off a country in crisis fatally separates them from the common course of American life.
Understandably, in the hours after the attacks many environmental organizations stepped down from aggressively pressing their issues. Greenpeace canceled its 30th anniversary celebration. The Sierra Club stopped all advertising, phone banks and mailing. The Environmental Working Group postponed a national report on chlorination in drinking water. That was the proper way to observe a period of mourning.
But the polluters and their political cronies accepted no such constraints. Just one day after the attack, one day into the maelstrom of horror, loss and grief, many senators called for prompt consideration of the president’s proposal to subsidize the country’s largest and richest energy companies. While America was mourning they were marauding. One congressman even suggested that eco-terrorists might be behind the attacks. And with that smear he and his kind went on the offensive in Congress, attempting to attach to a defense bill massive subsidies for the oil, coal, gas and nuclear companies.
To a defense bill! What an insult to the sacrifice to our men and women in uniform! To pile corporate welfare totaling billions of dollars onto a defense bill in an emergency like this is repugnant to the nostrils and a scandal against democracy.
They’re counting on patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to stand at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!
Let’s face it: the predators of the Republic present citizens with no options but to climb back in the ring. We are in what educators call “a teachable moment.” And we’ll lose it if we roll over. Democracy wasn’t cancelled on the 11th of September, but democracy won’t survive if citizens turn into lemmings. Yes, the president is our commander-in-chief, and in hunting down the terrorists in Afghanistan who attacked us, he deserves our support. But we are not the President’s minions. If in the name of the war on terrorism President Bush hands the state over to the most powerful interests circling Washington, it’s every patriot’s duty to join the local opposition. If the mercenaries try to exploit America’s good faith to grab what they wouldn’t get through open debate in peace time, the disloyalty will not be our dissent but our subservience. The greatest sedition would be our silence.
Yes, there’s a fight going on – against terrorists abroad, but just as certainly there’s a fight going on here at home, to decide the kind of country this will be during the war on terrorism.
During two recent trips to Washington I heard people talking mostly about economic stimulus and the national security. How do we renew our economy and safeguard our nation? Guess what? Those are the issues you are here to address, and you are uniquely equipped to address them with powerful language and persuasive argument.
If you want to fight for the environment, don’t hug a tree, hug an economist. Hug the economist who tells you that fossil fuels are not only the third most heavily subsidized economic sector after road transportation and agriculture but that they also promote vast inefficiencies. Hug the economist who tells you that the most efficient investment of a dollar is not in fossil fuels but in renewable energy sources that not only provide new jobs but cost less over time. Hug the economist who tells you that the price system matters; it’s potentially the most potent tool of all for creating social change. Look what California did this summer in responding to its recent energy crisis with a price structure that rewards those who conserve and punishes those who don’t. Californians cut their electric consumption by up to 15 percent.
Do we want to send the terrorists a message? Go for conservation. Go for clean, home-grown energy. And go for public health. If we reduce emissions from fossil fuel, we will cut the rate of asthma among children. Healthier children and a healthier economy – how about that as a response to the terrorists?
As for national security, well, it’s time to expose the energy plan before Congress for the dinosaur it is. Everyone knows America needs to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel. But this energy plan is more of the same: more subsidies for the rich, more pollution, more waste, more inefficiency. Get the message out.
Start with John Adams’ wakeup call. The head of National Resource Defense Council says the terrorist attacks spell out in frightful terms that America’s unchecked consumption of oil has become our Achilles heel. It constrains our military options in the face of terror. It leaves our economy dangerously vulnerable to price shocks. It invites environmental degradation, ecological disasters and potentially catastrophic climate change.
Two simple facts we need to get to the American people: first, the money we pay at the gasoline pump helps prop up oil-rich sponsors of terrorism. Second, a big reason we spend so much money policing the Middle East – $30 billion every year, by one reckoning – has to do with our dependence on the oil there. The single most important thing environmentalists can do to ensure America’s national security is to fight to reduce our nation’s dependence on oil, whether imported or domestic.
You see the magnitude of the challenge. You understand the work that we must do. It’s why you must not lose heart. Your adversaries will call you unpatriotic for speaking the truth when conformity reigns. Ideologues will smear you for challenging their spin. Mainstream media will ignore you, and those gasbags on cable TV and the radio talk shows will ridicule and vilify you. But I urge you to hold to these words: “In the course of fighting the present fire, we must not abandon our efforts to create fire-resistant structures of the future.” Those words were written by the activist Randy Kehler more than ten years ago, as America geared up to fight the Gulf War. They ring as true today. Those fire-resistant structures must include an electoral system that is no longer dominated by big money, where the voices and problems of average people are attended on a fair and equal basis. They must include an energy system that is more sustainable, and less dangerous. And they must include a press that takes its responsibility to inform us as seriously as its interest in entertaining us.
My own personal response to Osama bin Laden is not grand, or rousing, or dramatic. All I know to do is to keep practicing as best I can the craft that has been my calling now for most of my adult life. My colleagues and I have rededicated ourselves to the production of several environmental reports that were in progress before Sept. 11. As a result, of our two specials this year – Trade Secrets and Earth on Edge – PBS is asking all of public television’s production teams to focus on the environment for two weeks around Earth Day next April. Our documentaries will anchor that endeavor. One will report on how an obscure provision in the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) can turn the rule of law upside down and undermine a community’s health and environment. Our four-part series on America’s First River looks at how the Hudson River shaped America’s conservation movement a century ago and, more recently, the modern environmental movement. We’re producing another documentary on the search for alternative energy sources, another on children and the environment – the questions scientists, researchers and pediatricians are asking about children’s vulnerability to hazards in the environment.
What does Osama bin Laden have to do with these? He has given me not one but three thousand and more reasons for journalism to signify on issues that matter. I began this talk with the names of some of them – the victims who died on the 11th of September. I did so because I never want to forget the humanity lost in the horror. I never want to forget the e-mail sent by a doomed employee in the World Trade Center who, just before his life was over, wrote his comrade: “Thank you for being such a great friend.” I never want to forget the man and woman holding hands as they leapt together to their death. I never want to forget those firemen who just kept going up; they just kept going up. And I never want to forget that the very worst of which human beings are capable can bring out the very best.
I’ve learned a few things over a long life. I’ve learned that the kingdom of the human heart is large. In addition to the hatred at an Osama bin Laden, it contains courage. In response to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, my parents’ generation waged and won a long war, then came home to establish a more prosperous and just America.
We will follow in their footsteps if we rise to the spiritual and moral challenge of 9/11. Michael Berenbaum has defined that challenge for me. As president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, he worked with people who escaped the Holocaust. Here’s what he says:
“The question is what to do with the very fact of survival. Over time survivors will be able to answer that question not by a statement about the past but by what they do with the future. Because they have faced death, many will have learned what is more important: life itself, love, family, community. The simple things we have all taken for granted will bear witness to that reality. The survivors will not be defined by the lives they have led until now but by the lives that they will lead from now on. For the experience of near death to have ultimate meaning, it must take shape in how one rebuilds from the ashes. Such for the individual; so, too, for the nation.”
We are survivors, you and I. We will be defined not by the lives we led until the 11th of September, but by the lives we will lead from now on.
So go home and make the best grants you’ve ever made. And the biggest – time is too precious to pinch pennies. Back the most committed and courageous people and back them with media to spread their message. Stick your own neck out. Let your work be charged with passion and your life with a mission. For when all is said and done, the most important grant you’ll ever make is the gift of yourself, to the work at hand.
This speech and Bill Moyers’ introductory remarks are reprinted from Moyers on Democracy, published by Doubleday, 2008.