Late last year, a series of events--September 11, the US bombing of Afghanistan, the anthrax attacks, and the subsequent militarization of our society left me feeling depressed and intimidated. I needed to do something personally empowering--something that would show my disagreement with and contempt for the path the Bush administration had taken in response to September 11.
Like a few others here in Seattle, I took to the streets to protest. I also wrote articles against the bombing of Afghanistan and criticized the indefinite detention of Muslims and Arab-Americans. These things helped, but I still felt a heavy weight of fear. I realized that there was one form of political speech denied to me by the events themselves--particularly the anthrax mailings and subsequent FBI crackdowns--one freedom that I was afraid to exercise. And so, of course, I had to exercise it anyway. I sent a package to the President.
I sent several, actually--12 in all. Each one contained a plastic ziploc bag, a whole wheat pita bread (inside the bag), and a hand-written letter to his Highness George II. The fear that two FBI agents would come to my door was dispelled by my decision to type up the letters on my computer and e-mail them out to a list of friends and contacts, along with a clear explanation of why I was doing it. The more people who heard and knew about it, the better. Maybe they would mail the President some pitas, too. Surely that many pitas would get somebody's attention. And who knew, perhaps Bush II might have a conscience, after all.
But mostly I sent them out for myself and my friends. It was Christmas time, it had been a hellish year, and a few succinct, heartfelt letters would make me feel good and maybe cheer up my friends.
Here's the first letter I sent:
Dear President Bush: I am sending you this pita bread because I have too many. I was hoping you could forward it to a hungry refugee in Afghanistan. Please do not air-drop this, as air-dropped food sometimes lands in minefields. And I read the other day that a US aid pallet dropped on a house in Afghanistan and killed a woman and her baby. I'd feel really bad if this pita killed somebody by falling on their head, or something.
You could just put it on a truck in a UN aid convoy--that's the best way to get it to someone. Unfortunately, most of those convoys are being looted by bandits and Northern Alliance troops. I know you can do something about that.
Please do the right thing and assign some US soldiers to guard aid convoys in Afghanistan.
I kept it short and simple, so George Jr. could understand the letter when it was read to him by an intern. He wouldn't have to call John Ashcroft to have it explained to him. Each successive letter was similar, explaining why I was sending a pita bread and asking for something very specific in return. But the letters weren't all about Afghanistan. Here's a couple more:
Dear President Bush:
I am sending you this pita bread because I'm sure the 1,000+ Arab Americans in FBI custody don't get to eat much pita bread in prison. I can't seem to find the address for any of them to send them pita bread directly. I'm sure you could find out where they're being held and let everyone know where to send the pita.
Dear President Bush:
I am sending you this pita bread because it is round, like the world. I am hoping you won't go around the world looking for more places to bomb. I read today that some of your advisors want you to attack Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, The Balkans, Libya, Cuba, Colombia, Algeria, or an obscure region in South America where the borders of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet.
These folks want a World War III.
Why bomb other countries when you could send them pita bread instead? Please consider lifting the sanctions against Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, and Libya. Well-fed people are not a threat to us.
I sent 12 letters in all--one for each day leading up to Christmas (sort of a 12 Days of Pita). Here's my favorite, the last letter I sent:
Dear President Bush:
I am sending you this final pita bread on Christmas Day with a big wish for the season. Some people only wish for peace on earth on Christmas Day, but not me. I'm also wishing for justice on earth.
Please change your mind and support the International Criminal Court. Peace on earth can't exist without justice, too.
I didn't really think President Bush would respond. I did, however, expect him to respond. There's a difference sometimes between what you think a person will do and what you expect them, morally, to do. I expected him to send a form letter, a token that he had received the packages. What I really thought, however, was that I would be lucky not to have my phone tapped.
I waited. I waited. I waited some more.
Enron collapsed, Israel shot up the whole West Bank, the Worldcom scandal broke, and President Bush went on a golfing vacation. Still no letter. I lost hope.
And then, just before July 4, I received a 9 x 12 manila envelope from the White House. Inside was a piece of cardboard (to keep the envelope from being folded) and a single-page letter dated June 28, 2002. It read:
Dear Ms. Tomchick:
Thank you for your letter about Afghanistan. I appreciate your concerns and welcome your suggestions. As our Nation [sic] fights terrorism around the world, we remain committed to the welfare of the Afghan people and to the safety of those providing aid in the region. The United States helped Afghanistan to avert mass starvation, to reopen schools for both boys and girls, and to establish a representative and accountable government for all Afghan women and men. In addition, we are working to rebuild infrastructure, clear mine fields, improve health care, and integrate women into the workforce. America will provide a brighter future for people in Afghanistan. Best wishes.
George W. Bush
I tested the signature by licking my forefinger and swiping it over the writing. Hhmm. No smear. I got out a pencil and ran the eraser over it. It erased like a photocopy.
I am sending a letter in return. Here it is:
Dear President Bush:
Thank you for your response to my letters. I'm assuming you received them all? You only mention a "letter."
I think you should personally talk to some of the people providing aid in the region, particularly the female aid worker who was recently gang-raped in Northern Afghanistan by followers of Rashid Dostum (our ally, remember him?). "Safety" is in short supply, right now.
I also read that the UN World Food Program provided most of the food aid that averted mass starvation--a situation created by our bombing war against the Taliban. The UN and other NGOs are clearing minefields, too, but US troops are not--except wherever they pitch their own tents and park their jeeps.
I've also been listening to the radio. Western journalists in Afghanistan recently said that no redevelopment projects have gotten off the ground because of a lack of funds. And many Loya Jirga delegates complained to journalists that they were only being asked to approve Hamid Karzai's reappointment and his cabinet choices, but not to vote democratically on anything.
As for integrating women into the workforce, maybe you should talk to some of the women who live in Herat under the rule of the warlord Ismail Khan (our ally, remember him?). They live under the watchful eyes of his religious police. Afghan women in Herat still can't work outside their homes, and are required to wear their head-to-toe burkas. Even women in Kabul are too frightened to remove their burkas because of harassment and death threats. (Just ask the former minister of Women's Affairs why she resigned her post.) Is that progress?
I'm glad that you apologized to the families of the innocent people killed by US planes recently in Uruzgan Province. Surely you can see to it that this doesn't happen again? Maybe we should follow Britain's lead and withdraw our troops.
Or, better yet, you could recognize the International Criminal Court, shift our troops to a peacekeeping role, and go after war criminals like Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. This would provide a much brighter future for people in Afghanistan.