`A chill wind'

April 20, 2003

(This article is an excerpt from a speech by actor/director Tim Robbins delivered to the National Press Club in Washington on April 15.)

FOR ALL the ugliness and tragedy of 9/11, there was a brief period afterward when I held a great hope.

In the midst of the tears and shocked faces of New Yorkers, in the midst of the lethal air we breathed as we worked at Ground Zero, in the midst of my children's terror at being so close to this crime against humanity, in the midst of all of this, I held onto a glimmer of hope in the naive assumption that something good could come out of all this. I imagined our leaders seizing upon this moment of unity in America, this moment when no one wanted to talk about Democrat vs. Republican, white vs. black or any of the other ridiculous divisions that dominate our public discourse.

I imagined our leaders going on television, telling the citizens that although we all want to be at Ground Zero, we can't. But there is work that is needed to be done all over America. Our help is needed at community centers, to tutor children, to teach them to read. Our work is needed at old-age homes to visit the lonely and infirm, in gutted neighborhoods to rebuild housing and clean up parks and convert abandoned lots into baseball fields.

I imagined leadership that would take this incredible energy, this generosity of spirit, and create a new unity in America born out of the chaos and tragedy of 9/11. A new unity that would send a message to terrorists everywhere: If you attack us we will become stronger, cleaner, better educated, more unified. You will strengthen our commitment to justice and democracy by your inhumane attacks on us. Like a Phoenix out of the fire, we will be reborn.

And then came the speech: "You are either with us or against us." And the bombing began. And the old paradigm was restored as our leader encouraged us to show our patriotism by shopping and by volunteering to join groups that would turn in their neighbor for any suspicious behavior.

In the 19 months since 9/11, we have seen our democracy compromised by fear and hatred. Basic inalienable rights, due process, the sanctity of the home, have been quickly compromised in a climate of fear. A unified American public has grown bitterly divided, and a world population that had profound sympathy and support for us has grown contemptuous and distrustful, viewing us as we once viewed the Soviet Union -- as a rogue state.

Last weekend, Susan Sarandon and I and the three kids went to Florida for a family reunion of sorts. Amid the alcohol and the dancing, sugar-rushing children, there was, of course, talk of the war.

The most frightening thing about the weekend was the amount of time we were thanked for speaking out against the war because that individual speaking thought it unsafe to do so in his or her own community in his or her own life. "Keep talking. I haven't been able to open my mouth."

A relative tells me that a history teacher tells his 11-year-old son, my nephew, that Susan Sarandon is endangering the troops by her opposition to the war.

Another teacher in a different school asks our niece if we were coming to the school play. "They're not welcome here," said the molder of young minds.

Another relative tells me of a school board decision to cancel a civics event that was proposing to have a moment of silence for those who have died in the war because the students were including dead Iraqi civilians in their silent prayer.

A teacher in another nephew's school is fired for wearing a T-shirt with a peace sign on it.

And a friend of the family tells of listening to the radio down South as the talk radio host calls for the murder of a prominent anti-war activist.

Death threats have appeared on other prominent peaceniks' doorsteps for their views against the war. Relatives of ours have received threatening e-mails and phone calls.

Susan and I have been listed as traitors, as supporters of Saddam Hussein, and various other epithets by the Aussie gossip rags masquerading as newspapers and by their "fair and balanced" electronic media cousins, 19th Century Fox. Apologies to Gore Vidal.

Two weeks ago, the United Way canceled Susan's appearance at a conference on women's leadership, and both of us last week were told that both we and the First Amendment were not welcome at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

A famous rock-and-roller called me last week to thank me for speaking out against the war only to go on to tell me that he could not speak himself because he fears repercussions from [radio network] Clear Channel. "They promote our concert appearances," he said. "They own most of the stations that play our music. I can't come out against this war."

And here in Washington, [journalist] Helen Thomas finds herself banished to the back of the room and uncalled on after asking [White House Press Secretary] Ari Fleischer whether our showing prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay on television violated the Geneva Convention.

A chill wind is blowing in this nation.

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