The Days Before the Attacks: A 9/11 Memoire, Part I

31 October 2001 WTC

In late August if 2001, I traveled to New York City to visit a group of people who were protesting the sanctions against Iraq at the US Mission to the United States. I was not, initially, a member of the group. I was there to interview Kathy Kelly, who directed a group called Voices in the Wilderness out of her Chicago apartment. The UN was preparing to welcome dignitaries from all over the world to celebrate the UN Decade of the Child. That same UN, strong-armed by the United States and the United Kingdom, had become ‘weaponized’, in the words of Mahmood Mamdani, as it oversaw the most intensive and comprehensive embargo against any country in the world, the sanctions against Iraq.
During the 1980s, while the CIA was funding madrasas to train young men to become mujahadeen fighters taking up arms against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan, the United States was also working with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in its war against Iran whilst at the same time secretly supplying the Iranian with weapons to fight Iraq. At that outset of that war, Iraq was sitting on large surplus revenues from oil sales. Hussein’s government had offered a kind of deal to the Iraqi people: free education, free health care, a generous social safety net, in exchange for absolute power. Iraqi hospitals were among the best in the region. People from other countries would travel to Iraqi hospitals for complex operations.

The Iran-Iraq war did not go as planned. Calling up hundreds of thousands of men to fight, Iran used an army of numbers to hold the border and prevent Iraq from seizing the oil fields of southern Iran. When the smoke of this devastating war which in so many ways—trenches, machine guns, lines that do not move, chemical warfare—resembled World War I, Hussein now faced a huge debt in the form of loans earmarked for military purchases. Much of that debt, some $47 to $55 billion, perhaps less, was owed to the Kuwaitis and the Saudis, who had bankrolled the operation. One way to eliminate a large chunk of that debt would be to simply annex Kuwait. Within Iraq, it was a longstanding idea that Kuwait had once been a province of Iraq and should be again. Playing upon national sentiment, Hussein ordered his army to annex ‘Iraq’s nineteenth province’ (Kuwait) on 2 August 1990. Four days later, the United Nations responded with Resolution 661, imposing a near total embargo in Iraq as a first step in applying pressure on Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
Kuwait was liberated from Iraqi occupation by 25 January 1991 after Iraq’s army was driven from that country by a UN-sponsored coalition led by the United States. Resolution 661 would not be lifted until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thirteen years of sanctions would devastate any economy, but what made the UN Sanctions particularly lethal was the US bombing of Iraq in the early months of 1991, when most of Iraq’s chlorine production, sewage treatment and water facilities were taken out. After 1995, an infant mortality survey conducted by UNICEF, the UN agency concerned with the plight of children world-wide, showed that while infant mortality in Iraq had been decreasing steadily, due to the use of oil revenues to underwrite health care in Iraq, the number of deaths of children under five spiked dramatically from early 1991 onward. By 1995, according to the UNCIEF report, over half a million Iraqi children had died from treatable diseases like dysentery because they were drinking water contaminated with sewage. It was estimated that another million Iraqis over the age of five had died as well. In 1996, when asked about these numbers, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked by 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl ‘is the price worth it?’ answered, ‘I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.’ Albright went on to justify her remark by saying she did not want to see American soldiers have to re-fight the (first) Gulf War. In 1998, UN Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday resigned his position, calling the sanctions ‘genocidal’. His successor, Hans Von Sponeck, resigned the following year.
I attended the First National Organizing Conference on Iraq, held at the University of Michigan in 1999. One of the featured speakers, Kathy Kelly, who had been leading peace delegations to Iraq, told a story of driving down a road in Iraq when children came running up toward her vehicle gesturing with their hands, miming eating with utensils. They were crying for food. Kathy is one of the most powerful narrators I have ever listened to in person. Also attending the conference and sitting next to me was my then fiancée. I glanced at her cheek and saw the tears streaming down. I had to get involved.
All across the United States, grassroots groups of people appalled by the plight of Iraqi children were being organized. I helped form one in Iowa City and one in Dubuque. Lacking coordination, after a long struggle we gathered in February 2001 in Denver for the Second National Organizing Conference on Iraq, where the lugubriously titled National Network Against the War in Iraq (NNEWAI) was launched. I was asked by a colleague to stand for election to the new group’s coordinating committee and was voted in by a narrow margin. During the summer, with many volunteers having bailed, I found myself in charge of the group’s website. By fall, the organization was already nearly defunct, with attention having shifted away toward conflict in Israel-Palestine.

Part of my reason for showing up in New York City in August was to build a relationship between NNEWAI and Voices in the Wilderness, which was unique perhaps in that it had a national presence but unlike most national peace organizations, operated much more like other grassroots groups. My specific proposal when I called Kathy Kelly was to interview her with the intent of producing a book. At the time, Kathy did not have a book out and I thought a book would help her reach a wider audience. Kathy told me to show up at the Catholic rectory in Flatbush where they would be staying. They would be in the middle of a forty day fast in protest of the sanctions. They had obtained a permit for a small space next to the US Mission to the UN, across from the UN Building, where members would gather daily with signs. The message pointed. If the UN wished to celebrate what it had done for children around the world in the 1990s, what of the millions of Iraqi children who, again according to UNICEF, had died at the hands of UN Sanctions in 1990s? Kathy said we could do interviews during lulls.

We did start some interviews, but they did not get off to a good start, and whether or not Kathy was really too busy to continue or was just uncomfortable with some of my questions and so started avoiding me, I was not sure, but I resolved to be patient. Meanwhile I was meeting members of the protest group. Several of us would retire to the roof of the roughly eight-story building to talk and fall asleep on mattresses every night. Sometimes I would meditate and would specifically focus on the only structures in New York City prominently visible from Flatbush: the twin towers. I would also travel along to spend days at the protest site. One day, a plane with a banner reading ‘UN Vote for Taiwan’ was circling the UN building. Standing next to me was Ramzi Kysia, a Syrian American who had participated in the conferences. ‘We could do that,’ he commented. Really? The comment stuck with me.
A few days later we were at the protest site and it was approaching lunch time. In those days, I knew that if I did not eat, I might get a severe headache. All the people around me were about twenty some days into a juice fast. So it was an awkward question to ask, but I said: ‘Where can I find somewhere to buy lunch.’ ‘The UN Café is just around the corner,’ I was told. I came back with a carton of beef and broccoli with rice and sitting on a milk crate started to eat my lunch. Moments later, Kathy came by and tapped me on the shoulder, asking: ‘Will you be joining us at the protest?’ I reasoned that I could carry my food with me and finish it quickly. In single file we marched to the nearby steps to the US Mission to the UN. Members of the group were holding up signs condemning the sanctions on Iraq and announcing that we were on a forty day fast in protest. Spotting me at the end of the line trying to snarf down my beef and broccoli as fast as I could, Kathy came over and said, ‘Mike, could you go somewhere else and eat? It makes us look bad if we are saying we are fasting and one of our members is eating at the same time.’ Mortified, I left the steps, hesitated a moment, then came to a decision. Tossing my meal in a dumpster, I resolved to join the fast at that moment. Minutes later, police arrived and we were all arrested for civil disobedience (which was the plan), put in plastic handcuffs and carted off to jail to spend the night and be released early in the morning.

In the following days, as a now participating member of the group, I attended evening meetings, where I mentioned Ramzi’s comment. This set in motion an effort to raise the requisite funds whilst we made calls to agencies to get pricing. I had one such agency more or less lined up. The problem was how to come up with a message reasonably short enough to put on an airplane banner to circle around the UN. ‘UN Decade of Killing the Iraqi Child’ was maybe the shortest phrase we could get. And certainly the idea behind that was to shame those dignitaries arriving for the big celebration of the UN Decade of the Child as they got out of their limos at the UN building, but would the message be clear enough for the media or the broader public to get?
On August 31st, it was raining, so rather than sleep on the roof, I shared a room with others, including Curt, a former military medic from South Carolina who later told me he had a dream that night about buildings collapsing and falling debris. As he approached, he saw a man approach a woman pushing a baby carriage. The woman was hysterical and pleaded with the man to take her child to safety. Lifting the child from the carriage, he darted off into the fog of the falling debris.