NOW travels to Israel to examine the growing influence of Christian Zionists on the peace process and American foreign policy in the Middle East. Civil Rights attorney Connie Rice joins NOW for a lively, and oftentimes surprising, discussion of her views on the state of our nation and economic disparity. With continued killings, suicide bombings, civilian deaths and increased tension between Iraqi factions, will the US be able to safely transfer power back to the Iraqi people? NPR’s Deborah Amos reports via satellite from Baghdad. Bill Moyers ends the show with an essay on the treatment of girls and women in Afghanistan “under the tyranny of the Taliban, Islams’ horrific fanatical gangsters.”
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BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW. It seems that everywhere you turn today people are talking about THE PASSION. It’s Mel Gibson’s much publicized movie that before it’s even been released has created the kind of controversy that translates into much buzz and big bucks.
Is it a faithful biblical narrative of the last hours of Jesus, as Mr. Gibson says? Or is it bad theology that rouses old animosities by blaming Jews for killing Jesus? Guess what? We don’t know.
MOYERS: What we do know, David, is that events in Israel right now have biblical themes of their own, and they’re touching nerves in the political precincts of America in this election year.
We’re talking about a growing alliance between those Christians and Jews who have in common one fundamental belief: that thousands of years ago, God commanded that all of what we know as Israel and the West Bank, belonged forever to the Jews.
Many Israelis take issue with this. So do Palestinians; they say the West Bank is their homeland, too, and that the Jewish settlements on the West Bank are on occupied territory.
So, astonishing though it may seem, a literal interpretation of old scripture, about a piece of land so tiny you can drive across it in an hour, has become a hinge in world affairs and in President Bush’s hopes for re-election. Here’s our report from producer Bob Abeshouse.
PARSHALL: Welcome to Janet Parshall’s America. I’m Janet Parshall. I am coming to you live from the most important city on the planet. From Jerusalem.
ABESHOUSE: Christian evangelical radio host Janet Parshall reaches more than three million listeners a day on over 140 U.S. stations. She’s come to Jerusalem with her husband Craig because the city’s fate is crucial to her core audience…and to her own religious beliefs.
PARSHALL: It is the most important city in the world because as a Christian I believe some day that the Messiah will return back to this city.
ABESHOUSE: Parshall is what is known as a “Christian Zionist,” a Christian who believes that God gave the biblical land of Israel to the Jews, and it belongs solely in Jewish hands. In the Christian Zionist view this will lead to the return of the Christian messiah, Jesus. That event is called the Second Coming.
Christian Zionists say it is all in the Bible. First the Jews hold all of biblical Israel, then Jesus returns.
PARSHALL: We will never limp, we will never wimp, we will never vacillate in our support of Israel.
ABESHOUSE: Support for Israel in the view of Christian Zionists means support for Jewish settlements on the West Bank. And it means opposition to any peace settlement that would give any land to Palestinians.
PARSHALL: Whoever came up with the idea of land for peace has a very interesting definition of that. Apparently to some people’s way of thinking it means giving Israel away one piece at a time.
ABESHOUSE: The hard-line views of Christian Zionists are getting a lot of attention in Washington. Evangelical voters make up close to half of President Bush’s political base. And many evangelical leaders express Christian Zionist views.
One is broadcaster Pat Robertson.
ROBERTSON: I’m just convinced that God gave this land to the Jewish people. I believe the Bible, I believe the prophets, I believe what it says, it is clear, there is no mistaking it: the Unites States cannot stand against God’s wishes.
ABESHOUSE: Another is House majority leader Tom Delay. Here he is at a Christian Coalition meeting in 2002.
DELAY: The Jewish state is a very tiny country. And you know what, I didn’t see any occupied territory. What I saw was Israel.
ABESHOUSE: Here he is again speaking to members of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, just last year.
DELAY: I stand before you today in solidarity, as an Israeli at heart.
ABESHOUSE: Janet Parshall says Christian Zionist influence is growing.
PARSHALL: And I’ll tell you why: abortion, homosexuality are historically seen to be cornerstone issues in the evangelical community when it comes to public policy issues. But when you start looking at the nation of Israel you really go to a deeper question. And that is the sovereignty of God and whether or not the covenant that God made with his chosen people is a covenant as he said in his word to the everlasting.
RAY SANDERS: According to the Bible and what we read, we would say that certainly the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is a foreshadowing of the return of our savior the Lord Jesus.
ABESHOUSE: Ray and Sharon Sanders are Christian Zionists who moved to Jerusalem from Illinois almost 20 years ago. They wanted to be closer to the place where they believe Jesus will return and save true believers.
SHARON SANDERS: No one knows the day or the hour of the rapture, the catching away of believers. We have to be prepared.
ABESHOUSE: Rapture is the moment, according to these Christians, when believers in Jesus will receive a divine reward. They will meet their lord in the sky and be taken up to heaven.
Non-believers — including Muslims and Jews — won’t be saved unless they accept the Christian messiah as their own.
RAY SANDERS: Those who truly believe in the God of Israel, and his messiah, Jesus, those are the ones that will be saved.
ABESHOUSE: That’s the theme of a group of Christian novels which together have sold over 60 million copies in the U.S. alone. Among them are the LEFT BEHIND series, which has popularized the prophecy of a gruesome fate for non-believers, including a world war &151; Armageddon &151; leading to the end of the world: Apocalypse.
Like many Christian Zionists, Ray Sanders believes it could all happen soon.
RAY SANDERS: I believe the Apocalypse could happen within the next 20 years, very possibly.
ABESHOUSE: This theology has led Ray Sanders and other Christian Zionists to oppose any peace plan which would force Israel to give up land.
RAY SANDERS: That would be dividing the land of Israel which is contrary to God’s word, and I believe God will judge the nations who are pushing this to come to pass.
ABESHOUSE: The Sanders and other American Christian Zionists have become outspoken supporters of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza.
I took a ride with one group of American evangelicals. They had boarded a bulletproof bus to visit Jewish settlements on the West Bank. It’s the land captured by Israel in the 1967 war. The land Christian Zionists believe Jews cannot give up for any reason. That’s a view in stark contrast to that of the two million Palestinians living here who say they have a right to the land too and want it for their own state.
The West Bank is considered territory occupied by Israel according to the United Nations. I went with the group to the modern-day settlement of Shiloh.
SHARON SANDERS: And we just stand here and declare.
FEMALE VOICE: Yes.
SHARON SANDERS: These communities that we’re visiting, they’re here because these people are believing in their hearts that this word of God is true.
FEMALE VOICE: Yes.
SHARON SANDERS: That this is the land that the Lord God of our fathers has given us. We’re here to possess it.
FEMALE VOICE: Amen.
SHARON SANDERS: That’s what they are saying. That’s what they are doing. And we say amen.
ABESHOUSE: One of the organizers of the tour was Lou Beres, Oregon chairman of the Christian Coalition, the nationwide political organization begun by Pat Robertson. Beres, who is also a state Republican party leader dismisses concerns that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank are seen by many Israelis as an impediment to peace with the Palestinians.
BERES: I believe that there’s a possibility of living side by side. But I believe this: God gave this land to Israel. But I don’t believe we will probably have peace until the messiah comes.
ABESHOUSE: There’s a direct result of these beliefs: a political alliance between American Christian Zionists and Jewish West Bank settlers.
The tour was led by an Orthodox Jewish settler originally from Cleveland, Sondra Oster Baras.
BARAS: This is our land. This is land that God gave to the Jewish people. God made that promise to Abraham. And God’s word is true.
ABESHOUSE: According to Jewish teachings, a Jewish messiah — one who has not yet arrived — will come at the end of days to bring redemption to the world. That’s what Sondra Oster Baras believes.
BARAS: My vision of an end time solution is different from the Christian end time solution. But we are sharing that belief in a messiah, in a messianic age, in the fact that what we are seeing today in Israel is part of a redemption. That creates kinship between us.
ABESHOUSE: You’re not concerned that many of the Christians that you work with believe that ultimately Jews must convert or be damned?
BARAS: I’m waiting for the messiah and I am quite confident that he will come. I also know that he’s not Jesus. When he comes I believe God will enable the Christians of the world to see that the messiah is somebody else than who’ve they’ve been believing in all the time. And I’ll wait for that. I leave it in God’s hands.
ABESHOUSE: Oster Baras is an activist soliciting American Christian support for Jewish settlements.
BARAS: This chart documents our Adopt a Settlement Program where we have lists of communities on one hand that are interested in being adopted by Christian communities.
ABESHOUSE: More than 50 churches have responded by funding projects in their adopted settlements. They also provide political support.
BARAS: There’s no question that the political situation in the United States today, with President Bush coming from, or relying on the support of the Christian right, makes the Christian right, or the Christian Zionists in the United States a potentially vastly influential group of people, with regard to Israel.
ABESHOUSE: Christian evangelical leaders from Pat Robertson to Moral Majority co-founder Ed McAteer have as much as warned President Bush not to pursue any Middle East peace settlement which would create a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
PRESIDENT BUSH: All sides have made important commitments. And the United States will strive to see these commitments fulfilled.
ABESHOUSE: President Bush announced his support for a Palestinian state in 2002, and repeated it with much fanfare last June, but since then he hasn’t publicly pushed the point.
Some say that’s because if he does, Christian Zionists won’t go to the polls in this November’s presidential election.
BERES: I believe that that policy will not come to fruition. And if President Bush pushes that, I believe some of the evangelicals will stay home.
ABESHOUSE: Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg agrees. A world expert on Christian fundamentalism, he’s an orthodox Jew who writes about religion and politics for publications in both Israel and America.
GORENBERG: If Bush were to put serious pressure on Israel on the issue of settlements, on the issue of a two state solution, on the issue of a compromise in Jerusalem, that could certainly cost him votes.
ABESHOUSE: Gorenberg explored the underpinnings of Christian Zionism in his most recent book, THE END OF DAYS: FUNDAMENTALISM AND THE STRUGGLE FOR THE TEMPLE MOUNT. He says certain Christians have been waiting for the Jews to possess the entire Holy Land since the 19th century.
GORENBERG: For this reason, the creation of the state of Israel and Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War created tremendous excitement among many Christian fundamentalists.
ABESHOUSE: Gorenberg says that Christian Zionists now offer the Israeli right a useful tool to counter U.S. diplomatic pressure to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
GORENBERG: When the Israeli government sees a risk or a reality of American pressure or urging to make such a compromise, it can use or it seeks to use Christian Zionists in the United States to put pressure on the Administration to lay off.
ABESHOUSE: Thousands of American Christian Zionists come to Israel each year for events like Jerusalem’s Feast of the Tabernacles, where they are courted by conservative Israeli leaders like prime minister Ariel Sharon.
ARIEL SHARON (2002): Friends of Israel, may I tell you: we love you.
ABESHOUSE: And American evangelicals are putting millions of dollars behind their beliefs. Ray and Sharon sanders founded a group in Jerusalem called Christian Friends of Israel. Its distribution center provides assistance to new immigrants and other needy Israelis.
SHARON SANDERS: Since we opened our doors, during the Gulf War of 1991, we’ve had around a quarter of a million come through our doors to receive clothing, eye glasses, hearing aids, dental work help, financial help for bills.
ABESHOUSE: Why would Christians help Jewish immigrants settle here? It fulfills biblical prophecy they say.
GRAVES: We feel that God is bringing people back to Israel in conjunction with his promise to bring them back from the nations. And so we want to participate with whatever God is doing.
ABESHOUSE: While I was there, a group of immigrants were each given a Hebrew Bible and a satchel full of gifts.
GRAVES: They receive a pot, a frying pan, if we have the funds we also give them sheet sets, towels and glasses.
Some people think that we are out to convert people or evangelize or whatever. But in fact, we are out to be a practical help, and to encourage people, to comfort Israel.
ABESHOUSE: But remember, the purpose of all this kindness is also to take part in the fulfillment of prophecy.
It’s no accident that the organization’s main office is located a short distance from where these Christians believe Jesus will return.
SANDERS: This is probably one of the most coveted sites in Jerusalem. The Scriptures say that He will return in the way that He left. And his feet will touch down on the Mount of Olives. The biggest event the world’s ever seen is gonna take place right over there.
ABESHOUSE: Right next to the Mount of Olives is a site Jews call the Temple Mount. It was here that the Romans destroyed the second Jewish temple in 70 CE. And it’s here where Christian Zionists say Jesus will begin a thousand year reign on earth.
But before that happens, they say, Jews must erect a third temple on the plateau where the holy Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, now stands.
Beliefs like these are inflammatory in a country where people fight and die over competing claims to Holy Land.
Nevertheless, the Muslim Dome of the Rock doesn’t even appear on the mural of Jerusalem that greets visitors at Ray Sanders’ office. Instead, there’s an imagined version of the future third temple in its place.
SANDERS: According to the prophetic word of God the Third Temple will be built by the Jewish people. But at some point in time, the False Messiah will move into that Temple, declare himself to be God, and the wrath of God will be poured upon the nations.
SHARON SANDERS: And so judgment will fall. It will fall on Israel in a way because Israel has walked away from God in many ways. And He wants Israel to return to him. But Israel will be saved out of it.
ABESHOUSE: So, the false messiah will be an Israeli? Or…
SANDERS: Most probably will be Jewish. Whether he’s Israeli… maybe not, maybe not Israeli. But certainly Jewish.
YOUNAN: For me, that kind of theology, if it’s called theology, is alien for Christianity. And I can not identify myself with it even as a Christian.
ABESHOUSE: Munib Younan is a Lutheran bishop in Jerusalem. He is also a Palestinian refugee. He thinks Christian Zionist scenarios will only increase hatred in the region.
YOUNAN: What kind of ideology is this? Jesus will come to start the Armageddon age, the Armageddon war? That means those who do not believe in Jesus, you know, will be destroyed.
ABESHOUSE: Christian Zionists oppose a two-state solution because they say the West Bank was promised to the Jews in the Bible.
YOUNAN: I would say free the Bible and save the Bible from such interpretation. The only solution for the Holy Land is a two-state solution.
ABESHOUSE: Many Christians in the U.S. oppose the political stance of the Christian Zionists. In 2002, mainline Protestant and orthodox Christian leaders of the National Council of Churches called for the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the sharing of Jerusalem by the two peoples and three faiths so that Jerusalem may truly reflect its name, City of Peace.
Christian Zionists couldn’t disagree more on the status of Jerusalem.
PARSHALL: Jerusalem as a split capital? No, any more than the child before King Solomon could be cut in half.
ABESHOUSE: Christian Zionists do approve of the barrier Israel is building around Jerusalem that is part of a system of fences and walls that will span about 400 miles. The Sharon government says it needs the barrier to combat terrorism. Critics, including many Israelis, say it won’t stop terrorism. They also worry the fence will sabotage chances for peace by making it harder for Jerusalem to ever be shared by Israelis and Palestinians.
Gershom Gorenberg says President Bush hasn’t pushed the Sharon government on the subject of the fence or the sharing of Jerusalem.
GORENBERG: It would appear to me that his hope is that he can turn to his Christian Right electorate essentially with a wink and say, “We all know that I haven’t pressured Israel in any respect on these issues.”
ABESHOUSE: Whatever the case, President Bush seems to be winning the votes of many of the Christian Zionists who visit Israel.
BEA: I don’t see someone who would help Israel better than President Bush.
FORSEER: He understands these are Bible lands. I think that’s one of the first understanding is the Christians come to that God says early in the Bible in the Book of Genesis, “Those that bless Israel, I will bless. And those that curse Israel, I will curse.”
CNN: If Bush turns his back on Israel, then I would turn my back on Bush.
PARSHALL: You should come to Israel not because it’s one of the most glorious places on earth, not only because Jerusalem is the most important city on the face of this earth. But you should come to show your solidarity. To show your support for the nation of Israel.
ABESHOUSE: For Christian broadcaster Janet Parshall, there is no turning one’s back on Israel.
PARSHALL: God didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’ve changed my mind. I’ve now decided that the land no longer belongs to the chosen people.” If we get that directive from God, my politics will change. Until then, my politics are in line with God’s politics which is this is a God who keeps his covenant to the everlasting. He kept his covenant to his chosen people. And it will be that way until the Messiah comes again.
ANNOUNCER: There’s more to come on NOW.
Are government cutbacks targeting the poor?
RICE: We created more wealth than any other economy in the history of woman. And the people I represent never even got closer to the table.
MOYERS: Just as it is in Israeli and American politics, religion is also an issue in the news from Iraq. Next week, the interim governing council there is supposed to reveal the outlines of a new constitution for the country.
America’s pro-consul Paul Bremer anticipates it will look, smell, and feel like our own Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly, and religious belief to all Iraqis.
But some Muslim clerics there prefer theocracy to democracy. This with just four months between now and July 1st, when President Bush wants to hand over the country to the Iraqis.
For the latest, we go via satellite to Baghdad and NPR’s Deborah Amos, who’s been covering Iraq since her first visit there in 1987.
Deborah, welcome to NOW. Washington seems confused as to whether people in Iraq are saying Islamic law should be the main basis of the constitution or just a basis of the constitution. How is this playing out there?
AMOS: Well, the top US official in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer, made it very clear yesterday. He said he would veto any attempts to make Sharia, Islamic law, the source for Iraqi law. And that set off a fierce debate all day today in Baghdad. “How dare he say that?”
As a matter of fact, yesterday in the press conference there was a reporter from the BBC who challenged him and said, “Mr. Bremer, why is this any of your business? You are going to be gone on July 1st.” And that is true. And I think that after July 1st it will be the Iraqis who have to work out how much Islam they want in their constitution. And perhaps it might be better for Americans to not speak so openly about Islamic law because it really does make people angry here.
MOYERS: Do the Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Muslims disagree on the extent to which Islamic law should be the basis of the new government?
AMOS: Bill, it’s not even as easy as that because you have secular people in the country who don’t agree who are both Shias and Sunnis. You have Christians in the country who feel that their rights would not be respected under Sharia. You have liberal clerics who say, “All right, Sharia is fine. But who gets to interpret that? Wise men who have studied the law their entire careers? Or young firebrand clerics who make up their own interpretations or have their own very conservative interpretations?”
Then you have Sunnis and Shias who are very religious who say, “Wait a minute, we don’t interpret this the same way. It is not so simple when you say that a constitution in this country will be based exclusively on Sharia.” And that’s why this argument is going to be such a hard one to work out.
This is not a country that has one population. This is a mosaic in Iraq. And a constitution is going to have to please everybody for this government to be seen as a real government, as one with credibility. So it is one of the hardest questions that both the Governing Council is gonna have to solve in the short term and the Iraqi people are going to have to solve in the long term.
MOYERS: Is the July 1st deadline realistic?
AMOS: I think it’s realistic for two reasons. One, the Iraqis want the July deadline to be in place. Two, Washington wants it as well. I know there’s been plenty of suggestions that the Bush Administration set that date because they wanted it right in the middle of the Presidential campaign so the Bush Administration could claim that they had brought self-rule to the Iraqis and it would be a, you know, an election argument.
I think that date is becoming riskier for the Bush Administration. It is quite possible that some time in August when the Republicans gather in New York that you could have pictures from Iraq with street demonstrations, with chaos here and more violence.
MOYERS: What you’re describing is a potential for holy civil war.
AMOS: When the UN envoy was here, Lakhdar Brahimi, he warned Iraqis about civil war. He said it’s not that anybody plans it. It happens because people are selfish. And Mr. Brahimi knows very well about civil war. He comes from Algeria where no one would have suspected or predicted that Algeria would have had a civil war. But they did.
So he knows. And he warned Iraqis not to take that road because nobody here would win. I have not talked to anybody who wants a civil war in this country because here what they realize is everybody would lose. What you still have are politicians talking to each other. You could look at it this way. You had a powerful, influential Shia cleric stand up to the United States, win his point without shooting at US soldiers.
That is a good sign here. You have politicians who are arguing, who have mixed opinions. But they are still talking to each other. This is a country that has a very immature political culture. Yet, people are still willing to negotiate. What happened with the United Nations with an ayatollah who never leaves his house Bill, who’s only read one book on democracy but gets the concept, he got the UN to come here. He talked to them about democracy. They back his ideas for elections. They’re still negotiating.
MOYERS: And who is that and why is he so powerful?
AMOS: The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani essentially is the most respected man in Iraq among Shia Muslims and certainly among some Sunnis and Kurds. He is a jurist. He has spent years studying the law of Islam, a learned man, a religious man. He is at the head of an organization that runs through all of the mosques in Shia Islam in this country.
And he is a humble man. Brahimi met him in his home. They sat on the floor. They talked to each other. He’s 73-years-old. He has a Web site. I don’t know if he runs it himself, Bill. But he does have a Web site www.sistani.org.
And if you look there, it’s in English, it’s in Urdu, it’s in Persian, it’s in Arabic. And on that Web site you will find rulings on all kinds of things that a Shia Muslim may wanna know about. You know, daily questions that he has in his life. So this is a man who, you know, he’s not running around the streets.
He’s not spending a lot of time doing anything else but thinking. And what he has been thinking is Iraq needs a legitimate government. Not a handpicked one by the United States. He’s made that very clear to the United Nations. He has not met with any US officials, refuses to do so. But he’s been able to pull off essentially a political coup here.
He didn’t get his early elections. But he will get an election and guarantees for them. He’s pulled it off from his home in Najev without going anywhere.
MOYERS: There are reports out of Iraq that women are losing out in all this. Give us your own first hand reporting of what is happening to women.
AMOS: Back in May when there was lots of political room to talk about these things there were plenty of men who backed women when they stood up and here said, “Don’t forget us. Don’t sell us out on women’s rights.”
During Saddam’s time, women did have freedoms here more than any other place in the Islamic world. And they don’t wanna lose them. Many people here are organizing, are saying, “What we want are guarantees of 40 percent of the members in Parliament.” Now, people don’t like quotas. They don’t either.
But they say, “Look, you have new political parties here that were installed by the Americans. Why can’t you install women like you installed the men.” On the Governing Council, of the 25 members, only three are women. And they are not allowed to be in the presidential rotation like all of the men. Women are worried here that they will not be able to get their rights, that they’ll go backwards ten, 20 years, and have to work very hard to keep what they’ve got.
MOYERS: Sum up for us, for our viewers, exactly what the United States hoped to do by July one and what’s happening to those good intentions.
AMOS: So let me take you back to November. Back then the top U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, and the American-appointed governing council had set out a time table for what would happen until July 1st. What they intended to do was have regional caucuses in Iraq. That would be a very complex process but at the end of that they would have a legislature. And that legislature would pick a government. And that government would be the government that sovereignty was handed over to on July 1st.
That plan is out the window. And that’s why the United Nations came here. They were here last week.
In New York they said, look, we can’t have an election before the hand over. Security is not right, there’s no election law, there’s even no agreement on where the districts are in Iraq. There’s no census. It’s very difficult to have an election that fast. However, we will have an election sooner than the Americans wanted it. And the caucus system, that’s not gonna work.
So right now what we have is unknown. It’s not clear yet how the government that will take over power on July 1st is going to be chosen. Will the governing council be expanded? And if it is expanded who will do the choosing?
Now there are politicians here who say it is now time for the United Nations to help us choose, not the United States. And it looks like that is what’s going to happen. That the United Nations will help the Iraqis expand the governing council, scrap the caucus system. That will be the government that takes over on July 1st. And elections will follow in the months to come.
MOYERS: What will it take for this process to produce what the Iraqi people accept as a legitimate government?
AMOS: Bill, that is the hardest question to answer here. Because that’s what everybody wants. In fact if there isn’t a legitimate government it’s hard to see how you can ever stop the insurgency here. There are some people who do shoot, blow things up who actually could be convinced if there was a legitimate government here that they would stop the rebellion. Not all of them, not by a long shot. But there are some who could be brought into the political process.
So the governing council here has to find a way to expand itself and convince Iraqis that this is a real government. Not one hand picked by the Americans but more helped to be shaped by the United Nations.
And there’s another question here Bill, how will the Americans react when some of those politicians who join that new government are anti-American? There is such a strong sentiment here against the American occupation that no one will see that government as legitimate unless there are politicians who take a very strong stance against the Americans.
That’s going to be hard for Washington because they have put so much effort. There has been, you know, the military is here, this has been there issue. It will be very hard for the Bush administration to manage that kind of politics in Baghdad.
MOYERS: Deborah Amos, it’s always valuable to listen to you. Thank you for this report.
AMOS: Thanks Bill.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW. Were protestors — calling for an end to unfair trade practices — assaulted by the police?
KILLMON: The next thing I knew it was either a foot or a knee that was put in my back and I was forced onto the ground.
ANNOUNCER: Miami. Ordinary citizens become enemies of the state.
KESSER: These guys were moving forward and they were shooting. And they weren’t shooting at people’s feet. They were shooting at people’s heads.
ANNOUNCER: The crackdown on dissent…next week on NOW.
And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS online at pbs.org.
Track the history of Christians in the Holy Land.
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See what the foreign press is saying about the prospects for elections in Iraq.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
BRANCACCIO: Now, a conversation about democracy here at home and getting it to work for everyone.
Constance Rice is a lawyer who’s the driving force in many a fight to help poor people in California. She uses the courts to force changes in the system, from education, to prisons, to the police force.
Rice is now co-director for the Advancement Project in Los Angeles and is committed to tearing down barriers between those with the lowest-incomes and the American dream.
Connie Rice, welcome to NOW.
RICE: Oh, it’s great to be with you, David.
BRANCACCIO: You’ve argued that current policies have ground the poor into the dust. Given that, what is the message that you’d like passed up the chain of commands into our political structure?
RICE: We can’t, it’s not even passing it up the political structure. It’s getting, first, the African-American, Latino, progressive communities to take responsibility and to say, “This is actually gonna be on our agenda.” Right now, you know, you’ve got environmentalism, you’ve got women’s rights, you’ve got the civil rights, you’ve got gay rights.
And we’ve got these silos. But there isn’t anybody who’s actually arguing, “Look, folks, we as African-American middle class folk have completely left behind the folk Martin Luther King was marching in the street for.” And, in a way, that’s complete. It’s undeniable.
I’m interested in the folk who have been written completely out of the script. And we had just had the biggest generation of wealth, the Gilded ’90s, and it was a golden age. We created more wealth than any other economy in the history of woman. And the people I represent never even got closer to the table.
So I wanna reframe the entire debate to say what kind of economic systems and engines do we need to really include poor, rural white people who have the highest rate of poverty, increasing poverty in this country. Poor African-Americans who are in the underclass and really what we have for them is prison. Poor Latinos. Poor children across the board because we’re not doing it.
BRANCACCIO: It may be possible to have a dialogue with people who don’t necessarily always share your political views. There may be ways for you to create coalition.
RICE: Oh, absolutely. I do it every day. I mean, most of my cases are done with moderate Republicans. And I sue Democrats. I mean, Democrats won’t claim me. Most of the people I sue are Democrats.
In fact, almost every single case I’ve done has been done with unlikely allies. Because that is exactly the kind of political leverage it takes to pivot people out of the paralysis of the extremes. You’ve got folk on… entrenched in one view, entrenched in another. And they’re ready to go to war. And no problems get solved.
So, you’re absolutely right. To solve problems, big, public policy problems, it takes folks who say, “We’re gonna use our public wealth, our common wealth, and we’re gonna use it strategically to fix this problem.”
You’re absolutely right. These unlikely alliances are exactly what it takes. And my point is not so much about… there are a lot of moderate Republicans want to spread wealth more broadly. They understand that when you lose your middle class, you lose your democracy.
BRANCACCIO: If you lose the middle class, you lose Democracy?
RICE: That’s right.
BRANCACCIO: In what way?
RICE: You cannot have a democracy, a multi-racial, multi-class democracy without a middle class. If our gaps between the haves and the have-nots get too extreme, you don’t have a democracy. Because the folk who have that… the haves have such entrenched and concentrated power, that even the votes of the have-nots don’t matter. Because it’s just sort of a referendum, and a ratification of whatever the haves have put on the table.
And it takes the middle class, and the civic institutions, thousand points of light. One way to put this is that, you know, I believe in the thousand points of light, too. You and I are one of the thousand points of light, the individuals and the civic organizations, from Catholic charities, all the way to the feminist groups, environmental groups. Our civic infrastructure; we’re the thousand points of light.
But David, a thousand points of light can’t replace the sun. And the government, and the big institutions that we need to spread and create commonwealth, that’s the sun.
BRANCACCIO: Tick off for me, just for a moment, some of the programs that you see getting defunded in this environment.
RICE: Remember welfare… we’re gonna end welfare as we know it. Well, the child care costs are being cut.
All of the subsidies for transportation are out the window. So, everything that would allow that to work, even at a marginally functional level for the poor, it’s all out the window now.
Is it a total pulling of the plug? No. But if people don’t understand what the real agenda is here, once you get a judiciary and a federal House and Senate, and a President, who are very strongly in favor of valuing states’ rights over individual rights, think that the War on Terror gives them a right to completely throw out a lot of the Bill of Rights. In fact, Justice Rehnquist said, and what Americans don’t understand is that a lot of the rights they think are guaranteed aren’t necessarily, aren’t absolutely necessary under our constitution. They’ve just evolved. But we don’t have to keep them.
We need to understand that it can radically go in a in a much more deeply, and entrenched way, to a point where we won’t be able to recover a lot of what we take for granted.
BRANCACCIO: The odd thing though about concerns about national security, and balancing our rights with the need for security, in California where I lived until recently, there was, I seems one set of priorities, in terms of how we should approach this national security issue. I’ve recently moved here to the east coast, to a town that actually lost too many people when the World Trade Center came down. Maybe what is necessary is a government that is very aggressive in pursuing our national securities’ interest. And in fact, tilting the balance a little bit away from civil liberties.
RICE: You know, I used to work on the 82nd floor of the Tower Two…
BRANCACCIO: Did you?
RICE: …when I worked for the New York State Department of Law. And I lost three of my NYU law colleagues in the World Trade Center. And I’m a military brat, and moved almost every year.
Nobody is arguing that we should submit to a cult of assassins. And you don’t negotiate with assassins. There’s nothing to negotiate. Our question is are we really becoming more secure?
Because I hope the President’s right. He’s made a choice that says, and I have no doubt about his motives in trying to keep this country safe. I don’t question that at all. What I’m questioning is the effectiveness. These cults, these underground, shadow networks that are somewhere in between organized crime and nation state war, we’ve never seen anything quite like this. So, we don’t really have a way of fighting it. So, it’s all gonna be experimental. And I give him a lot of leeway for that.
But if you respond with nation state war apparatus to an underground, secret network, cult of assassins, my question is, does that make sense? I’m talking about TAC, MAC and SAC. Tactical, ability and strategic air command is what my dad did.
And so, when I look at those kinds of frameworks, I’m saying, you know, tactically and strategically, have we played into their hands? My fear is that we’ve done everything Osama Bin Laden wants us to do, thinking that we’re making ourselves more secure. I have no problem with getting a tighter reign, and choking off their funds, no problem going after the people who have declared war on us.
I have no problem. I can even go so far as when you absolutely know someone has attacked us, and killed 3,000 of our people, take ’em out. My civil libertarian friends are probably cringing right now. I have no problem with that. I’m asking a fundamental question about what’s the smartest way to put these folks out of business? And do we understand who the real audience is here?
What are we doing to build up moderate Muslims? This is a fight for the soul of Islam. And we can’t fight it. We’ve got to be the wind beneath the wings of the folk who have got to forge a modern vision of Islam.
Right now, if you go to Indonesia and Southeast Asia, which is where the real, new engine, that’s the new site is, according to the C.I.A., and all of the Interpol analysis, and you go, there are moderate Indonesians are feeling sympathy for Osama Bin Laden, we’re doing something wrong.
BRANCACCIO: Connie, you raise fascinating, interesting issues concerning national security. Some might debate them. But you have a special road to expressing these questions, and trying to open up some minds in the White House. You have kin in high places. I think the National Security Advisor of the United States is Condoleezza Rice, is what your first cousin?
RICE: She’s a second cousin. Yes.
BRANCACCIO: She’s a second cousin?
RICE: Second cousin.
BRANCACCIO: So, I mean, I’ve got my cell phone. Should we call her? We could…
RICE: She wakes up every day, and consults with me about national security.
BRANCACCIO: It must make for some interesting chatting at Thanksgiving.
RICE: Well, let’s put it this way, I deeply admire my cousin. She’s a wonderful woman. I put it this way: I’m working on trying to close the gap between the under class and the poor. She’s just working on closing the gap between the millionaires and the billionaires.
BRANCACCIO: I think you gotta call now, Connie.
RICE: It does make for interesting, for interesting talk. But, fundamentally, different paths to building this democracy. Condoleezza is on the end where you concentrate on wealth, and you concentrate, and you invest in the few who create wealth.
I’m at the other pathway. I believe you invest in the many. You enrich the many, not the few.
That’s how we created and engineered our middle class with the GI Bill. We subsidized home ownership. We subsidized a lot of stuff to create the middle class. I believe you ought to invest in the many to create upward mobility and the government has a role. There’s a different vision and I think that the people in charge and who dominate the political machinery, they have a different vision.
They don’t think that government should be in the business of investing in the many. They think that’s a waste of their tax dollars. And they think the government should have very limited roles: defense and a few other things. They’re a little bit hypocritical about it because they end up rigging all the tax systems and everything to benefit the super rich, in my unbiased opinion.
But the real debate here which nobody ever comes out and says because they can’t say, “Guess what, America? Our vision is to take away all this machinery that’s helped you become middle class. And we wanna put an end to it. And we wanna move to another vision that values wealth more than work. And we wanna invest in the wealthy because they create more jobs.”
Valid view. But I happen to disagree with it. I don’t think Americans don’t understand that choice.
BRANCACCIO: Well, the approach may also be a valid one. Cut taxes. Grow that economy. And that will accrue to the many, as you put it. Remember in the 1990s in Los Angeles during the great sort of economic boom of the 1990s. Violence, murder rate in that city where you live fell. So it’s clear that by making the economy grow, some of these social problems will retreat.
RICE: Yes, cutting taxes. And the questions is for whom. If you cut taxes for the middle class and the working class you grow the economy much faster. And you also grew jobs. Now, I’m not gonna lay the blame on this regime and this administration and this party for the fact that jobs aren’t… there are a lot of factors internationally.
We don’t quite know how to respond to international trade. And neither party is putting forward a vision. But the bottom line is you can’t talk about growing the economy and creating upward mobility and leaving no child behind and all that great rhetoric and compassionate conservatism at the same time you’re completely defunding the systems that make all that stuff possible.
BRANCACCIO: Given your convictions though, your palpable convictions on these issues, what do you do to move the debate forward, other than talking about them, say here? Do you take to the streets?
RICE: Well, you know, there is a role for taking to the streets. But it has to be strategic. It can’t just be this emotive, you know, just all over the map on the unstrategic…
BRANCACCIO: It has to be focused and strategic.
RICE: Has to be focus. And it has to be part of a much more sophisticated plan. First, you have to identify what’s really going on, which is what we’re even just approaching here in this conversation. You hear very few conversations about what’s going on behind the third curtain on the stage. And the Kabuki dance that’s happening in the front of the stage, I know has nothing to do with reality.
I’m talking about three curtains in, and lifting it up so the American people can see what is really going on. There’s no way they can know.
But you don’t think this will come out in the wash in November, at the Presidential election? That the American public will have that choice…
BRANCACCIO: …and they can decide.
RICE: No. And you wanna know why? Because you can’t take these deeper issues, and reduce them to sound bytes. And I think that the Democrats, you know, there’s really no Democratic party. You’ve got a vehicle for raising money for elections. But there’s nothing that continues in between.
There isn’t a party. And that’s part of the weakness of the folks who have my vision. And in that context, while you have the Presidential race as a good arena for venting some of the macro frustrations: frustrations with war, frustrations with this ridiculous budget, that is just absurd on it’s face, those big sort of screaming, neon issues people can see. And so, the candidates glom under those, cause they can talk about ’em. They can put ’em in sound bytes. They can put ’em on bumper stickers.
And… but the stuff that you and I are talking about is hard to reduce to a bumper sticker. And they don’t know how to explain it. They don’t know how to explain it. And they don’t know how it will play with the electorate. Is it totally unbelievable to the electorate that the tax system, and all of the distribution of power, and the mechanisms of power have been so calibrated, recalibrated, and reprogrammed to benefit so few?
You map that. And people’s eyes glaze over. So, it’s very hard to make it listenable. It’s very hard.
BRANCACCIO: Let’s move on. I’ve been asking you these macro questions, grand, global questions. What about your personal work to address some of these? Give me a sense of how you’re actually out there, on the street, trying to address some of these issues.
RICE: Well, you know, David, in the realm of Los Angeles which is fourth behind Calcutta in wealth disparity. Meaning it really is a third-world. A first-rate, third-world city. You’ve got enormous issues of poverty and immigration and language and race and how do you bring up a population that is so far behind to a point of middle class Americana?
And our business is trying to make LA work for the poor. So what do we do? We sue to make the bus system work so poor people can get to their jobs. We challenge the prison systems. I sue people who don’t produce results with our public money.
You cannot take $10 billion of money for the Los Angeles Unified School District. $10 billion, David. They can’t even tell you what they’re doing with it and the kids are illiterate. No. Unacceptable. We try to… it’s almost Robin Hood law.
We take lawyers and policymakers and think tanks. We put them together with grass-roots leaders and we create teams that either file a case or do an election, something that attacks a big problem that can’t be solved, that’s paralyzed.
I mean, our cases have transferred, I’d say, about $6 billion worth of public wealth into systems for the poor. And we do that with an incredible range of the best grass-roots folks who know their neighborhoods, who are forging multi-racial coalitions to fix problems.
BRANCACCIO: But if you do, as you say, practice Robin Hood law, any affluent viewer looking in on us is gonna go, “Gulp.” A person of more modest means is gonna say, “I’d love to be the beneficiary of that redistributed wealth.” How do you create what even you argue are necessary coalitions with people of different classes?
RICE: You know what? I get money from people who are the super rich because they understand that it’s actually in their interests to have an engine that’s creating upward mobility. Their wealth is more secure in a country where people have hope and know they can move up and know there’s a future for their kids.
And that, in fact, the more educated the people are around them, the better fed, the better, you know, they understand that when the folk around them are doing well, they do even better. So you’re actually enriching the rich. But by enriching the many as opposed to enriching the few. They get it.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Connie Rice, thank you so much for sharing these views on NOW.
RICE: And thank you for having me.
MOYERS: Earlier in this broadcast, you heard Deborah Amos talk about the fear of women in Iraq that under Islamic law, they would be denied their rights once a new government is in place. But it’s not just in Iraq.
If they gave an Oscar for the movie that best calls forth the moral imagination — our inherent ability to feel life as others live it — the winner would easily be a little film, just 83 minutes long, called OSAMA.
Not the Osama you’re thinking of, not the butcher of 9/11. This Osama is a young girl growing up in Afghanistan under the tyranny of the Taliban, Islam’s horrific fanatical gangsters who emerged out of the chaos after the Russians left the country.
After that war, before 9/11, the Taliban turned their full and frightening talents back to the repression of women.
Women exist, in this fundamentalist reading of sacred scripture, to be impregnated, indentured, and for disobeying the mullahs, stoned to death.
The film dramatizes an extraordinary moment in Kabul, the capitol, when hungry impoverished desperate women, mostly widows, protest for the right to work and are driven back by their masters.
Since only males are eligible for jobs, it is decided that Osama will be passed off as a boy. Her meager wages the family’s only hope to stave off starvation.
It works for a while, though under the ubiquitous eyes of Taliban vigilantes, she is soon found out and imprisoned.
For her sin of posing as a boy, defiling the faith, she is given as a wife to a sadistic old cleric, condemned to bondage for the rest of her life in the name of god.
See this movie if you can. It cuts deep and stays long. Which is one reason OSAMA won the Golden Globe award as the best foreign language film of the year. But when you see it, keep in mind that the theological thuggery has returned to Afghanistan.
Human rights observers there say the situation for women and girls there is once again appalling. They can be stopped in public by the virginity police and examined for evidence of sexual intercourse. Young girls are often given over to settle blood feuds. One teenager who ran away from the octogenarian husband she had been forced to marry was arrested and sentenced to more than two years in prison.
On and on the litany goes…abductions, rape, harassment, suicides. Of course, Afghanistan is not the only place where women suffer from religious tyranny, but our honor as a nation is invested there. “The rights of the women of Afghanistan will not be negotiable.” So said Secretary of State Colin Powell soon after the US started hunting for bin Laden.
And two months after 9/11 our first lady said: “Because of our recent military gains [there], women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. The fight against terrorism,” she said, “is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
They surely meant it. But misogynist fundamentalist warlords have taken up where the Taliban left off, and a country liberated by American power remains for women a totalitarian society. And for us, a broken promise.
BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. Bill Moyers and I will be back next week. I’m David Brancaccio. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 23, 2015.