In 2003, as the nation went on heightened alert against terrorist attacks, this episode of NOW with Bill Moyers considered the many cities with chemical plants that could be targets. Critics claimed that toxic and often explosive chemicals remained largely unprotected throughout the nation, even though billions had been spent on homeland security. Is it the government’s responsibility to make sure these sites are protected from attack, or should private industry take the lead?
Alice Walker (jump to transcript), alongside other writers, had recently been arrested while protesting the war in Iraq. The writer of numerous novels, poems, short stories and essays, she is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning THE COLOR PURPLE, a book whose themes, she told Bill Moyers, were as important in 2003 as they were when she wrote it 20 years earlier. She spoke candidly about her anti-war activism, her spirit, how her life and ancestry are reflected in her writing.
Finally, Bill Moyers talked about the war in Iraq with Alan Wolfe, professor of political science and Director for the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Professor Wolfe is the author of several books, including MORAL FREEDOM: THE SEARCH FOR VIRTUE IN A WORLD OF CHOICE. You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. Immediately after this broadcast, Jim Lehrer will be back with the latest of what’s happening in Iraq.
So we are going to begin with the homefront where there have been fears all week of terrorist reprisals.
Here in New York, local police, state troopers and the national guard fanned out to protect railroads, bridges and nuclear facilities that could be targets. In my neighborhood, you could see parents walking their children to school, tightly gripping their hands. A single routine siren made all of us jumpy.
We have a story on how, despite the clear and present danger of terrorism, a huge American industry that has made itself the patron of the state has wound up promoting homeland insecurity.
NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling and NOW’s William Brangham prepared our report.
ASHFORD: Well, Dan, I want to show you something which we’ve been concerned about a great deal here.
ZWERDLING: Watch the wire.
ASHFORD: Right in the middle of an urban area.
ZWERDLING: Nicholas Ashford has been studying toxic chemicals for decades. He’s an authority on industrial safety at MIT. Ashford’s taking me up on this rickety roof to show why one of the biggest terrorist targets might be in your own backyard.
ASHFORD: You see those colored tanks in the distance? Those tanks contain a chemical, in this case its vinyl acetate, which if released can cause serious lung problems, heart problems, liver problems. If released, you’re talking about going into an area which is about 5 miles radius circular, affecting more than a million people.
ZWERDLING: We’re not going to tell you where we are, and we’ve altered this video to disguise the tanks. The Department of Homeland Security is warning that Al Qaeda operatives might be planning to attack a chemical plant.
Now, it’s a little hard for me to believe that those tanks which seem rather small next to that building, that they could affect a million people.
ASHFORD: The tanks are small, but you’re talking about it containing a pure chemical. These plants are sitting ducks. This plant that we see here is along three major highways and arteries, any of which people could go by and drive by. These are very easily sabotaged plants.
ZWERDLING: After terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the nation’s leaders said “never again.”
PRESIDENT BUSH: We will not allow this nation to be threatened. We will protect the Homeland. We will defend freedom no matter what the cost.
TOM RIDGE: We have moved rapidly to map and protect our critical infrastructure, such as power plants and financial systems.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Defending our nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks is now our first and overriding priority.
ZWERDLING: The White House says the country urgently needs to protect these foundations of American society but critics say there’s a huge obstacle and you don’t hear much about it. They say executives at major corporations are not doing what they need to do to make the country safer.
Most of the critical industries in this country, most of the critical, so-called infrastructures which make society tick, are owned by private industry.
RUDMAN: Oh, better than 90 percent. As a matter of fact, the report that Gary Hart and I did for the Council of Foreign Relations indicated that the real problem would be in the private sector and with all due respect, and I’m a great admirer of private business, private business does not necessarily always have the public interest uppermost in their minds.
ZWERDLING: Warren Rudman should know. He’s a board member at leading companies. He was a Republican Senator from New Hampshire. Rudman chaired a commission on national security beginning three years ago, along with his Democratic colleague Gary Hart. They basically warned that attacks like 9/11 would happen. They pleaded with industry and government to get ready. But Gary Hart says, “Here we are a year and a half after 9/11, and hardly anything’s changed.”
HART: By waging war in the most vulnerable region in the world, we dramatically increase our jepoardy here at home. However else you feel about the war, it should not have been undertaken until we were better prepared for what I believe are almost inevitable retaliatory attacks in this country.
ZWERDLING: We’re going to tell you a story now about how one industry is getting prepared for a terrorist attack. Or not getting prepared in some cases.
Linda Greer has spent her career studying things like pesticides and air pollution. She’s a toxicologist at one of the country’s best-known environmental groups. But after 9/11, she got caught up in a drama about national security.
GREER: It happened just a couple of days after the World Trade Center, where someone on the news mentioned that the terrorists had taken our own technology and used it against us. And there was just something about that that clicked in my brain. And I said, “Oh my god, you know, they wouldn’t have to carry chemical weapons into our country. We have all these vats of tanks of chemicals that could serve as weapons so nicely.”
ZWERDLING: In fact, the ringleader of 9/11 reportedly tried to get details about a chemical facility in the south. Greer says if you want a sense of what a terrorist could do, just look at the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. A chemical called methyl isocyanate leaked and spread a deadly cloud over the city.
GREER: Thousands of people were killed and injured. People are continuing to this day having problems all as a result of that exposure.
ZWERDLING: There’s been nothing this catastrophic here in America. But there are thousands of smaller chemical accidents every year.
GREER: A lot of people imagine that our chemical industry is located far away from neighborhoods.
ZWERDLING: Down a dirt road?
GREER: Down a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, far, far away from any children, any schools, any hospitals. But it’s really quite to the contrary. You know, many of our factories are actually nestled in neighborhoods that grew up around them. You know, it just doesn’t take much imagination to think about what a big bang could happen in one of these places. And they are so common. They’re all over our country.
ZWERDLING: In fact, according to government reports, there are more than a hundred plants across the nation where a single incident at any one of them could kill or injure more than one million people.
Greer and her colleagues wanted to figure out the fastest way to help protect those communities from terrorists. So they analyzed aerial photos and maps, they researched which plants keep the biggest tanks of the 20 deadliest chemicals. And then they drafted an emergency action plan, which they said could make the plants a lot safer.
Normally, an environmental group like this one would try to make a big splash with their new report. Give it out to all the press. But the NRDC stamped these findings ‘confidential.’ They say they worried that the details could end up helping terrorists. And so they took them straight to the President’s staff.
GREER: Well, the first person we went to was the EPA administrator, Christie Todd Whitman. And nothing, nothing came of it. We took it to Homeland Security, to a top official at Homeland Security. To a General, to General Lawlor who had read the report, found it very interesting. Had very good questions. Nothing happened. We took it to the Democratic leadership in the Senate. We said, “You know, this administration is not doing anything about this. Somebody needs to be paying attention to this.” Nothing. The attitude was industry will take care of this.
ZWERDLING: But at least one politician was paying attention. Senator Jon Corzine, who’s a Democrat, said the government has to force the chemical industry to take action.
CORZINE: I live in Hoboken, New Jersey right now in an area that is in the flume site of one of the major plants in South Kearney which has seven and a half million people estimated to be in the radius where they could be potentially impacted by one of these explosions.
ZWERDLING: Corzine says activists have been proving for years that security at a lot of chemical plants is weak. The group Greenpeace routinely flouted the law. They snuck into some of the biggest facilities in the country. They actually opened chemical tanks to test the chemicals and they caught it all on video. After 9/11, the chemical industry announced that they were launching an urgent security program.
Corzine says that’s encouraging, but it’s nowhere near enough. He says the program affects only a fraction of the chemical facilities across the country and it’s voluntary. In fact, an investigative reporter tested the new system. He marched right into dozens of plants and he took photos to prove it.
Corzine says the federal government has never told chemical facilities how safe they have to be.
CORZINE: If we were going to say that it’d be okay to have voluntary security around a nuclear power plant, I think the public would say that’s ridiculous. We want to make sure that you have assurance and accountability that those security measures and those safer technologies are actually put in place. I do want to say that there are a number of corporate entities that I think are doing an outstanding job. But there are others that are not.
ZWERDLING: Corzine drafted a bill that would tell the industry, “you have to do everything you can to protect your plants from terrorists.” Companies could do the obvious things like build better fences. But the bill would also tell executives, “you have to figure out if you can make your products in new ways that don’t need such dangerous chemicals.” This might sound like a fantasy but look what one company did to protect Washington, DC.
MARCOTTE: Here at the Blue Plains Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant on the southern tip of DC, we’re treating the waste water from about two million people in Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.
ZWERDLING: You might not figure that a sewage plant would be a target for terrorists. But U.S. officials say they found Al Qaeda computers in Afghanistan that contained maps of plants like this one. Marcotte says most water treatment plants around the country use millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, every single day. He used to do it.
MARCOTTE: Had about seven tank cars including about 550 tons combined of chlorine and sulfur dioxide, both very volatile, dangerous chemicals.
ZWERDLING: In fact, chlorine was used as a chemical weapon, back in World War I. Researchers have warned for years that if chlorine leaked from this plant, a poisonous cloud could blanket Washington DC, including the Capitol and the White House. Marcotte says nobody took the warnings seriously, but then came 9/11.
MARCOTTE: After a sleepless night on the 11th, I came in on the 12th and convened a number of my engineers and said, “I think we need to come up with a plan to get the chlorine out of here as quickly as possible.”
ZWERDLING: Marcotte got rid of the chlorine and today, he’s treating Washington’s sewage with a much safer chemical instead. It’s called sodium hypochlorite, basically strong household bleach.
So you’re telling us that until you changed right after 9/11, a single terrorist with one bomb could theoretically have snuck in here and caused a disaster in all of Washington, DC.
MARCOTTE: Well, that’s certainly one of the possibilities that kept me awake in September of 2001.
ZWERDLING: But now if a terrorist blew up this tank truck, what?
MARCOTTE: His clothes would get discolored.
ZWERDLING: And that’s it?
MARCOTTE: That’s about it.
ZWERDLING: So why hasn’t every waste water treatment plant around the country done this?
MARCOTTE: Well, I think there are several reasons. Costs more money both in terms of the chemicals and in terms of the handling.
ZWERDLING: He says the new system costs almost a million dollars more, per year. So every Washingtonian’s sewage bill has gone up, but not by much.
So, in other words, somebody like me living in this area, you’re saying I’m paying about 50 cents more?
MARCOTTE: 25 to 50 cents, depending on—
ZWERDLING: Per year?
MARCOTTE: Per year.
ZWERDLING: To avoid having a chlorine disaster annihilating a big part of Washington, DC?
MARCOTTE: Correct. I think a pretty good bargain.
ZWERDLING: This is exactly the kind of change that Senator Corzine and a lot of researchers want to encourage. They say, “look, every business can’t get rid of its most dangerous chemicals.” In some cases it might be too expensive, in other cases it might be technically impossible. But history shows that many executives won’t even try unless the government pushes them to do it.
Corzine’s chemical bill finally came up for a vote in a powerful Senate committee, the Committee on Environment and Public Works. And everybody was for it.
CORZINE: Got a vote in my committee, 19 to zero — 19 in favor, nobody opposed.
ZWERDLING: Pretty nice.
CORZINE: Pretty nice. I was thinking we were going to have a lot of success.
ZWERDLING: But industry flipped. Just about every trade group you can think of that has to do with chemicals — oil refiners, paint companies, fertilizer makers — they barraged Congress with angry letters and e-mails and full-page ads. Marty Durbin speaks for some of the biggest chemical companies in the nation.
DURBIN: I think it’s incumbent upon industries like ours to take responsibility and as we did jumped out right after September 11th and started taking the steps necessary. But again, there is an appropriate federal government oversight role to ensure that those things are being done.
ZWERDLING: Given all this, why did you, why did the petrochemical industry, work so hard to kill a bill that supporters say would’ve required all of those facilities to make themselves safer in the face of terrorists?
DURBIN: Well, there were several legislative proposals that came through last Congress and we tried to improve some of them, but frankly, we see that that’s history now, and you know, again, we believe we are doing what needs to be necessary and looking forward.
ZWERDLING: But here’s some of that history: the chemical companies and their allies fought practically every detail in Corzine’s security bill. They said it would unleash a “jihad against the industry” by giving government too much power. One group called the bill “Stalinesque.” Industry said the bill could end up helping terrorists. Executives said they don’t need bureaucrats telling them how to run their business.
Some of your critics say, “Look, we will not make chemical facilities as safe as they need to be in this country, unless the chemical facilities are willing to redesign how they do what they do, so that they use a lot less toxic chemicals and substitute safer ones instead.” Would you support the federal government passing a law or a rule ordering chemical facilities to do that?
DURBIN: Well, frankly we think that it would not be necessary as it is already, I mean, it’s a part of our culture of safety and responsible care that our member companies already do that. So I don’t see that as a necessary.
ZWERDLING: The industry’s opposition paid off. Only a month and a half after the Senate committee unanimously passed the security bill, six Republican Senators changed their minds. One of them had hailed the chemical bill as “vitally important to the American people.” Now he and his colleagues were telling Congress to oppose it.
We asked those Senators to explain why they changed their votes and none of them agreed to talk. But here are some possible clues. It turns out that five of those six Senators got more money from the chemical industry than almost anybody else in the last Senate election. It also turns out that the chemical industry’s chief lobbyist was one of President Bush’s top fundraisers.
The chemical security bill was essentially dead.
We wanted to ask White House spokesmen about all this, and they declined comment. But one administration official agreed. Al Martinez-Fonts works for the Department of Homeland Security.
MARTINEZ-FONTS: I was in private sector all my life. Did I like it when the government came in and stepped in, and told the banks to do certain things? The answer’s no. In general, we don’t like to be told what to do.
ZWERDLING: Martinez-Fonts is a top aide to Tom Ridge. Before that, he was an executive at the huge banking firm, JP Morgan Chase. He says administration officials still can’t decide exactly how to get vital industries to do more to protect the country from terrorists.
MARTINEZ-FONTS: In many cases, the government does mandate things. We have, you know, mandates for safe food. We have mandates for safe airplanes. We have mandates, I mean, the government mandates an awful lot of things. But in general, in terms of Homeland Security, we have not done that with a lot of areas.
ZWERDLING: Why do you think that it makes sense that the federal government told the airline industry, “You’ve got to be safer and here’s how you’re gonna do it.” And why does it not make sense for the government to take that same role with, say, the chemical industry?
MARTINEZ-FONTS: Well, the answer is because September 11th happened and they were airplanes that were rammed into buildings. And it was not chemical plants that were blown up.
ZWERDLING: Some critics we’ve talked to say, “Here’s what we think is going on. The federal government is facing a war. It needs to tell industry how to make the country safer. But President Bush and all his advisors hate the idea of big government, and they feel uncomfortable telling industry what to do.
MARTINEZ-FONTS: Yes. I would agree that the Administration has been very proactive towards business, promoting business issues, et cetera. The point is people are concerned that a lot of regulation, a lot of legislation might ultimately come out. I think we’re trying to avoid that. I, as the person representing the private sector in Homeland Security would prefer to avoid that altogether.
RUDMAN: Look, when people start spouting ideology, “We don’t like to regulate industry,” well, that’s nice ideology. Doesn’t fly in these circumstances. We are talking about public safety. We’re not talking about those companies. We are talking about public safety.
ZWERDLING: So what do you think the Federal role has to be? Should be?
RUDMAN: I think the federal role needs to be to set standards and make sure those standards are observed just as we do with clean air and clean water and workplace standards. I think we have to have security standards, and people are going to have to meet those standards. And I hope the federal government could contribute some of the money towards that, but industry will have to contribute some as well.
ZWERDLING: So far, we’ve been talking about one industry that doesn’t seem to want to pay. But when you look at just about every vital part of American society, you’ll see the same kind of drama. The White House says, “we’ve got to protect the food supply” but major food companies are fighting proposals to strengthen security. The White House says “we’ve got to prevent terrorists from sneaking a terrible bomb onto a ship” but some of the country’s biggest retailers have helped kill proposals to guard their shipping containers.
HART: Well, America is a country whose economy is based on the marketplace. We believe in capitalism. We believe in the private sector and entrepreneurship. That’s the good news. The bad news is when the country’s in trouble, that private sector has to begin to think differently. It has to add a new dimension to its thinking beyond the bottom line. And that will not happen unless the President of the United States tells them to think that way.
ZWERDLING: Administration officials say they are sitting down now with executives from the chemical industry and they’re working on a plan to make chemical plants safer. But they won’t give us any details of what that plan’s going to look like.
Meanwhile, just before President Bush gave Saddam Hussein his final ultimatum earlier this week, we tried to see if the chemical industry really gets the message. Remember those tanks full of toxic chemicals at the beginning of our story? Again, we’re disguising the tanks. We decided to see how close a terrorist could get.
There’s no sign of security and we’ve been here for several minutes.
ASHFORD: Yeah, there’s reason to be concerned.
MOYERS: There are so many military experts analyzing the war in Iraq, it’s practically impossible to know where the military ends and the media begins. They’re embedded in each other. Just take a look at this promo for NBC News.
NBC PROMO: When America goes to war, only NBC News has the experts: General Norman Schwarzkopf, Allied Commander during the Gulf War; General Barry McCaffrey, who was the most highly decorated four star general in the army; and General Downing, former special operations commander General Downing and White House advisor.
MOYERS: With me to analyze the war is not a military expert but a moral philosopher. Alan Wolfe is one of our most prolific public intellectuals and the author of this book on MORAL FREEDOM and of the best-seller ONE NATION AFTER ALL.
Alan Wolfe teaches at Boston College where he founded the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Thank you for coming tonight.
What do the words shock and awe convey to you morally? The concept shock and awe? The strategy being put to use right now in Baghdad?
WOLFE: Awe of course is the word from which we get the word awful. That’s the first thing I think of when I hear that word, of something awful. In a way, it is a kind of religious language, shock and awe. It implies a vision almost of Armageddon. And when I saw that today on television, that was my first reaction, Armageddon.
MOYERS: How do you balance your concern for America’s soldiers in harm’s way with your concern for the Iraqi people who are on the receiving end of all that firepower?
WOLFE: Well, some moral philosophers and the most prominent would be Emanuel Kant believes that you can’t make a distinction; that you have to generalize your morality to humanity as a whole and that it would be wrong morally to say that I take the life of an American as more valuable than the life of an Iraqi because it is just a contingency that I happen to be an American.
I have to see things from the viewpoint of everyone. I admire that as a moral philosophy but it’s not mine. This is my country that’s at war. The kids that are over there, some of them are the children of people I know. I feel a very strong personal identification with them. I don’t want to see them lose their lives. And if we could end the war quickly and save more lives in the long run, then I think that that’s what we’ve got to do.
MOYERS: Does seeing the pictures unbalance the moral equation? Do they give too much weight to what is happening right now to the people in Baghdad at the expense of what Saddam Hussein did to those people over the years?
WOLFE: There is an odd way in which the world itself outside the United States increasingly perceives Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush as morally culpable, equally; that they’re both people that are pursuing ends by the use of violence.
That’s an odd position for us to find ourselves in because we are a democracy and Saddam Hussein is certainly one of the cruelest and most evil political leaders in the world today.
Many people around the world feel that we’ve reduced ourselves to his level by this massive campaign which, of course the generals talk about how necessary it is, but when you look at it, Bill, on television, you got to think, are we being a little bullyish here?
I mean, I know we’ve got to win the war but this is a country that doesn’t seem to offer us much resistance.
MOYERS: What do you mean in terms of dissent, in terms of protest?
WOLFE: Iraq doesn’t seem to be able to fight against us.
MOYERS: It is clearly unbalanced in terms of the might. But that’s the advantage.
WOLFE: That’s the military advantage but morally it’s much more problematic when a big country with all those weapons goes after a country that doesn’t seem capable of defending itself. The moral equivalent is very very different from the military equation.
MOYERS: This is our President, our government using our taxes. What is happening in Baghdad right now is being done in our name. Help us resolve that conflict.
WOLFE: Well, I do feel it is being done in my name. And part of what’s being done, if the President were successful in his objectives, and I can’t foresee the future, perhaps it is all going to happen just as he says. Perhaps it is going to be a short war and democracy is going to flourish in the Middle East and there is going to be a solution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis and before you know it, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are going to be democratic states. What a wonderful vision.
If that’s the way it plays out, boy, he’s had incredible foresight that I haven’t had and I’ll be the first one to congratulate him on that accomplishment. But right now it sure doesn’t look like that’s what is going to come about.
MOYERS: Is there a distinction here between the political issue and the moral issue now that the war is begun?
WOLFE: Absolutely. It’s an enormously important distinction. Politically, I do not think that Mr. Bush can lose. Morally, I don’t think he can win.
MOYERS: What do you mean?
WOLFE: I mean this, that there are two choices here really. It is either going to be a short war or a long war. If it’s a very short war, the political benefits to Mr. Bush will be enormous. He took them on, he won, war is over, troops are home, great sigh of relief, re-elected, triumphant. That’s if it’s a short war.
If it’s a long war, it’s because Saddam Hussein does have weapons of mass destruction and Mr. Bush can say “Look, I told you, he’s dangerous. He’s got these weapons. That’s why it took us so long to defeat him.” So whether it’s long or short, the whole political calculus seems to me to strengthen the President.
But morally, it is the exact reverse. If it is a short war and the man is taken out, people around the world are going to scratch their heads and say we’re bullies. He wasn’t so dangerous after all. What is this huge powerful country like the United States doing going after this guy who had no means of defending himself? So a short war morally looks very bad for us.
Now if it’s a long war morally, then people are going to say, my goodness, this is why you need allies. This is why the United Nations should have been involved. This is a major event we’re undertaking. And so in that sense, I think morally it’s going to look very problematic.
So I believe that militarily and politically the war is going to be over pretty quickly and it’s going to be to Mr. Bush’s benefit. But morally, I’m really, really worried either way about how the rest of the world perceives this country and what role this country is going to play in the world once the guns are stopped. That’s where the big issue is for me.
MOYERS: Was it self-evident to you this week the moment at which the moral discourse, the moral language ceased to function and military language took over?
WOLFE: Boy it was like… overnight. One day it was Shakespearean. We were watching the Security Council. And you know how Shakespeare has these characters, “France” and “England.” Well, there they were, France and England and they were talking the language of high diplomacy and it was dramatic and there was conflict and people there were really searching for solutions.
One of the reasons I teach about politics is because there is something to love about that. How do these different countries with their different points of view, how do they iron out their differences? It was magnificent in its drama.
And the next day, all the diplomats are off television. All the Senators are gone. No more John Warner and Robert Byrd speaking eloquently. It’s one after another after another generals. I didn’t know we had so many ex-generals. And it’s maps…
I saw one guy was standing on the map as the lights were going on illuminating the maps. I said this is an entirely new world we are in with respect to the media coverage. The politics is gone and it’s now all strategy. Once it gets to strategy, people say dissent is bad, we shouldn’t argue about these things. We need closure. I feel we’ve gotten closure, I feel it’s premature closure. I’m not ready to be closed.
I think the debate should be going on still in the Security Council. That shows you how out of touch I am with the way strategy works…
MOYERS: It shows you and others have lost the argument. What is the balance between your obligations as a citizen and your own obligations morally to your sense of self and your values?
WOLFE: If I were a citizen of a country that were not a democracy in which it was widely recognized that leaders make all the decisions and then should have the maximum free will to carry them out, my obligation would be to just line up and support the President and not appear on NOW WITH BILL MOYERS and stop writing for newspapers and magazines.
But I do happen, fortunately — I can’t tell you how delighted I am about this — to live in a democracy. And in our democracy, I feel I personally have an obligation to do, what I would do in peace time, and that is to talk, talk, talk because politics is about to talk. Morality is about talk. It is about finding the right way to do things. And you can never stop that conversation.
Now, I know people over there. Their sons are friends of mine. I can’t tell you how strongly I support them, how much I believe that they are making a sacrifice for their country, how admirable I think it is and how I think that everything should be done to protect them and make sure they come home but they have to come home to a democracy. And we can’t give up on democracy in the name of protecting ourselves.
MOYERS: Democracy has often been defined by war. The American Revolution was an act of force that won the freedom of the colonies. The Civil War was an act of war that ended slavery. The Vietnam War defined us because we lost that war. Is this a defining moment in American history?
MOYERS: Well, this is definitely a defining moment because we didn’t have the support of the world community to go to war. And that’s a revolutionary change in the way we’ve approached war.
We are a country that was founded by a Declaration of Independence that talked about taking the decent respect of mankind into our calculations. We have always been a country that has tried — we haven’t always been successful — but has tried to respect the rules by which international politics are governed to do things in a way that resonated with our own ideals. And this time we’ve been… we’ve gone to war in the way that the world community clearly indicated thinks is wrong. They’ve spoken as loudly as you can be.
When the President of the United States has to talk about a coalition of the willing that includes minor countries and seems like he is approaching the coalition of willing the way they addressed the chads issue in Florida, then there is something wrong.
MOYERS: When Saddam Hussein, who models himself after Stalin, in the spirit of Hitler. When a man like Saddam Hussein is governing a country as cruel as he is, doesn’t someone have the moral obligation to take him out?
WOLFE: Someone has the moral obligation to show the kind of leadership that I actually thought the Bush Administration was showing in the beginning, with respect to this — bringing it to the United Nations, making a case. There is absolutely no doubt that the United Nations ignored these resolutions year after year. I think it is to the great credit of the Bush administration that they made it an issue and they had this remarkable success.
And they were guiding everything they wanted and they could have brought it to a conclusion in a way that would have won the respect of the world community. I believe that France, Russia, all these countries that we’re denouncing now and changing the names of our products, boy, that they would have been there with us if we had gone through with the procedure.
Administration was too impatient. Not only was it too impatient. It seemed to want to make a point. It is almost as if, and I say it’s almost as if they got scared that the international community really would be with them and that would undermine what many of the more hawkish defense intellectuals in the administration wanted, which was to act without the world community.
MOYERS: Alan Wolfe, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
WOLFE: Thank you. A somber time, but thanks for having me.
ANNOUNCER: Next week on NOW: this spring, big media may get even bigger.
BLETHEN: If we go out 20 years from now with the same pace of concentration of media ownership we’ve had for the last 20, we will not have a democracy. There’s simply no way.
ANNOUNCER: And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS Online, at pbs.org.
MOYERS: Heartbroken, angry and fearful. That’s how Americans opposed to this war describe their emotions today. Many took to the streets once the bombing started, stopping traffic in Chicago, Portland and elsewhere.
Americans in support of the war also turned out and in San Francisco for one, there was violence. Reminiscent of how Americans turned on each other during the Vietnam War.
Some protesters I talked to expressed their solidarity with American soldiers the President has sent to Iraq, as well as with the civilians under bombardment tonight in Baghdad.
But none had an answer to my question, “What next?” Except Alice Walker. That’s right, Alice Walker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her big novel, THE COLOR PURPLE. In addition to her novels, poems and essays that have made her one of the country’s foremost writers, Alice Walker takes sides as a citizen. She and a score of other writers were arrested in Washington two weeks ago protesting the impending war.
This week, on the very night the missiles started flying, Alice Walker was in New York, reading at the 92nd Street Y from her new book of poems. The title may be the most incongruous of the moment: ABSOLUTE TRUST IN THE GOODNESS OF THE EARTH and this in a time of war. I wanted to talk to Alice Walker about that trust.
Do words matter in a time of war?
WALKER: Oh, they matter perhaps more than anything else. First of all, they don’t harm you no matter how strong they are. They don’t necessarily make you cower, you know. Words are not exactly swords even though they can penetrate consciousness. We need them very much in times of war.
MOYERS: You were arrested recently in Washington protesting the invasion of Iraq, you and a score of other writers: Susan Griffith, Maxine Hong Kingston. Neither your words nor your witness stopped this war.
WALKER: No, but I had to put myself there because I’m a human being, I believe in a very different way of life than war and bombing people.
MOYERS: When you say, I had to put myself there, you’re suggesting some kind of imperative.
WALKER: It is imperative for me to live up to my own expectations of myself. I couldn’t live in a time like this without speaking out. It would be impossible. I couldn’t even think of it.
MOYERS: But if your words and your witness don’t touch the people in power, of what use are they?
WALKER: I think that eventually they will touch the people in power but until then they touch the people around me.
And that is my primary concern: that I am here to offer comfort, solace, some instruction perhaps, whatever I have, to the people around me and the people who need to hear poetry, the people who need to know that together we can still celebrate even though this is a very dreadful time.
MOYERS: Listening to you last night and reading your new book, words do leave a record of a kind. I mean, they speak for people who can’t speak for themselves.
MOYERS: This one, for example. Would you read “Thousands of Feet Below You”?
MOYERS: Do you think that if people in power read poems like that they could exercise power?
WALKER: I think it would be more difficult to assault and kill people that you don’t see because you would have some kind of sense of how they’re connected to you, and you would be reminded that you yourself generally speaking in this country would come from a family that would have the same people that you’re killing in your house for dinner.
I mean, in my culture that is certainly true. The people that we are bombing right this minute, if they wandered into Georgia and they wandered up to my mother’s door, she would have no problem — if she were alive — accepting them as guests and trying to feed and take care of them. That’s the human way. War is really a backward step for humanity. I always come back to something that my parents taught me growing up in Georgia when lynching was, you know, not uncommon and when black people were treated horribly.
They would always say to us, you must not consider all of them evil, because if they knew better, and this is a spiritual teaching — if they knew better they would do better — and so that prevented us from — and for generations of black people — from after the Civil War for trying to just kill all the white people we came across.
MOYERS: Listening to you last night I found myself wondering if poets and writers like yourself had extended your imagination, your moral imagination to, say, the victims of Saddam Hussein, might you have prevented some of the atrocities that he conducted, and could you write about those people the way you write about the victims of American power?
WALKER: Yes, of course, because I’m not saying that that’s good, you know, I mean, I understand that there are people who are twisted and psychologically destructive and harm their own people. I mean, that happens in this country. So of course. I mean, I care about people who are, you know, in danger and in harm’s way no matter where they are. For instance, when I was working on female genital mutilation and I did a lot of the work in Africa, I could see very clearly that the damage being done to those children was damage done by their parents often and by, you know, their governments and by all of the people who had been silent, for thousands of years.
And so, and America had nothing to do with that. But by bearing witness, by going there, I was able to join the people who have been against it for a very long time. And it’s changing. It’s changing slowly, but it’s definitely changing.
MOYERS: What did you think of while you were waiting in jail?
WALKER: Um, I thought that I was one of the happiest people on the face of the earth, because I felt that I had lived up to the ideals of my ancestors and to my own expectation of myself to stand for what I believe in and against something that I feel is detrimental to humankind.
MOYERS: Who did you think of while you were there?
WALKER: I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. I really loved him very deeply as a teacher and I had met him when I was a student. And I followed him, you know, in many of his marches, and I was at the march on Washington in ’63, and I went to Mississippi to live because he said to us, go back to Georgia, go back to Alabama, go back to Mississippi.
I mean, otherwise I would have lived in the north. So I was thinking about him and I was thinking how he was always so fearless, and how impressed I was with that fearlessness. And I was thinking, what — all those years I used to think — what was it, why was he without fear?
And then I remembered that line from, I think, the New Testament, “Perfect love casteth out fear.” And it was the love that he had for humanity that made him fearless.
MOYERS: I want to believe that this spirit that you radiate is contagious and yet I look around and I see so much war now in Iraq, the cruelty, the violence, the images on television, and I have to say how can anyone write a book of poems today with the title ABSOLUTELY TRUST IN THE GOODNESS OF THE EARTH? Do you really believe in the goodness of the earth?
WALKER: I do. Absolutely.
MOYERS: What is that?
WALKER: Well, clearly you were not brought up as a farmer.
WALKER: See? Well, I was, and I had that connection to the reality that the earth is for us, for humans, basically all there is. You know, I mean you may want a god up in the sky, but basically you’re here on earth. And it’s earth that feeds you, earth that shelters you, earth that clothes you.
And in my experience that is good. How can you witness spring anywhere in the world where, you know, that’s not being bombarded, you know, but just spring itself, how can you witness that without knowing that the earth is good?
How can you eat a watermelon, how can you, you know, smell a peach? How can you eat an ear of corn without knowing that the earth is absolutely fabulous?
MOYERS: But nature fights back. I remember what 15 years or so ago, you had Lyme Disease. You didn’t even know there was such a thing as Lyme Disease.
WALKER: I know.
MOYERS: You had a very serious case of it.
WALKER: I know.
MOYERS: That little tick in the goodness of the earth struck back.
WALKER: It did.
And I thought that, you know, the earth had sort of turned on me. And it was a crisis of faith. You know, just as a Christian would have a crisis of faith or whoever, I had a crisis of faith in the earth.
MOYERS: How so?
WALKER: Well, if the earth had let these three ticks bite me and I became sick for almost five years, you know, gosh, I felt abandoned. You know, I questioned the goodness of the earth. But you know, I got over it.
MOYERS: You know, people have said of your new book that it affirms the power of nature and the beauty of the human spirit, but I’m beginning to have some trouble with language like that because as you just said, nature has a nasty side and the human spirit is capable of such great cruelty.
I read a story some years ago about the first South African black woman who declared that she had AIDS. And you know what happened?
WALKER: They stoned her.
MOYERS: Her neighbors stoned her.
MOYERS: Now, what does that say about the human spirit that you celebrate?
WALKER: Well, it says that there’s a lot of suffering, you know, and the foundation of suffering is ignorance. I mean, we’re talking about a village that was really incredibly ignorant. They had no idea what had befallen them. They had no idea really what had befallen her. And they just turned on her.
MOYERS: What do you try to do with your writing?
WALKER: I try to help people see. I try to help people see what is really there, to see with feeling. To see with feeling. Not just to gaze, you know, but when you see something, when you think of the pregnant woman, you know, pacing the floor, wondering if the roof is going to stay over her head, or whether something is going to drop through the roof onto her and her unborn baby. When you can help people to feel what that’s like, then there’s a possibility of changing them.
I can’t tell you how many thousands of people I have talked to who’ve read THE COLOR PURPLE and who have said basically you know, I was drowning, you know, I was about to kill myself, or I thought I was the worst person on earth because this had happened to me, incest, wife beating, whatever. And this book came at a time when it changed that, it changed that feeling.
MOYERS: How so?
MOYERS: Made them see what?
WALKER: Well, it made them see their connectedness…
MOYERS: Not alone.
WALKER: …to other people who had survived this, and who didn’t stay in that corner.
See, if you think about people in that situation as people who just stay there, I know this bad stuff is happening all over the world, but sometimes people can come out of it and they do.
MOYERS: How did you learn not to accept what is unjust? Where did that come from?
WALKER: My mother. My mother once cleaned the house of a white woman who owned the land all around. And she cleaned the woman’s house, she washed her windows, she scrubbed her floors, she cooked dinner, she raked the leaves, the magnolia leaves in the yard.
She did this from sunup to sundown, and the woman paid her 75 cents.
MOYERS: For the day?
WALKER: Um-hmm. And my mother gave it back to her.
MOYERS: She just handed her the money for the pay and your mother said…
WALKER: “No, thank you. No, thank you.” I mean, you have to know your own worth. You have to understand what it is, what your gift is and what you’re giving and to put a value on it. You know, and to just say no to injustice. And that was so unjust.
MOYERS: Well, you make me think of, who is it, Tashi?
MOYERS: Tashi in that novel the…
WALKER: POSSESSING THE SECRET OF JOY.
MOYERS: When she said the secret of joy is resistance.
WALKER: Yes. Well, it is resistance to tyranny, yes.
Now, for instance, about this war, I’m very upset and sorry, but on some level my happiness is the same because I have done everything I could do, you know, short of becoming a violent person myself, which I choose not to do and which is not my nature. But I’ve done everything else that I could do. And so I feel that my happiness is fine.
MOYERS: When I think of the space you have created for yourself I think of this, I’m not sure which poem this came from, but it says, “Despite the hunger we cannot possess more than this, peace in a garden of our own.”
WALKER: Yes. Well, that’s true, I mean, you can take over people’s lands, you can steal their water, you can do all the things that people do, you know, acquiring more and more. But really you can’t possess more than peace in a garden of your own.
MOYERS: Your mother’s garden keeps reappearing in your mind and in your work, doesn’t it?
WALKER: Yes. Well, because it was so indelible. Imagine, I mean, you don’t have to imagine because you’re from the south also, but a very impoverished situation that through my mother’s art and great heart she turned into a magical place by planting flowers, so many that the poverty was obscured.
She understood this profound thing, which is that food is okay for your body but that for the mind and for the soul you have to have beauty. If you don’t have beauty, your soul cannot thrive.
MOYERS: Have you made your peace with the world that keeps waiting for another COLOR PURPLE?
WALKER: I never cared that they waited. You know, really. I was always writing something else. I mean, after THE COLOR PURPLE I wrote THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR, which I love, you know, and each of my books I feel very happy with.
So that other people want another COLOR PURPLE, why would they want another one? They have one.
MOYERS: Doesn’t this also go to the source of creativity? I mean, one couldn’t create THE COLOR PURPLE again. Where did that book come from?
WALKER: It came from a lot of love of my grandparents who were so… talk about ignorance. My grandfathers were mean, both of them. They were so mean to their children, they were mean to their wives. And this was brought down to us, you know, through stories, because by the time I knew them were they mean? Were they horrible? No. They were totally sweet. They couldn’t do enough for me. They adored me.
And so you know, I mean, I wanted to write in such a way that people could see how you can transform. And that is what happens in that novel, there’s transformation. And beyond that there is the transformation of Celie from someone who believes in a totally inaccessible deaf God to the God of her sister, herself and nature. So you know, I was working on those two levels, specifically.
MOYERS: Even as you talk I can see Shug and Celie walking through a field of purple flowers at the end of the film.
SHUG: More than anything, God loved admiration.
CELIE: You saying God is vain?
SHUG: No, no, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.
MOYERS: Those are enduring words. Are there still… is there still any color purple left out there in the world?
WALKER: It’s everywhere. That’s the point. You know, the reason it’s called THE COLOR PURPLE is that we used to think that purple was rare. I mean, just like we thought incest was rare, or we thought that a certain kind of beauty was rare, or that we thought whatever was rare. Gay people, we thought that was rare.
In fact, it is everywhere, it is in everything.
MOYERS: Then let’s close with this poem. It’s not new but it endures. Tell me about that one. That seems to be pure Alice Walker.
WALKER: Oh, I know. Yes. This is “Expect Nothing.”
MOYERS: Thank you, Alice Walker.
WALKER: Thank you.
MOYERS: Coming up on most PBS stations, continuing coverage of the war on Iraq following our broadcast. And in a time when, like Alice Walker, we are thinking about what it means to be an American, I invite to you join us in a special documentary series, called BECOMING AMERICAN: THE CHINESE EXPERIENCE. Whatever your own roots, this will remind you of the struggle that has shaped our country. It airs on PBS next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Check your local listings.
That’s it for NOW. Thanks for watching. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on April 7, 2015.