9/11: The End of Illusions

The day the atrocities of Sudan were brought to America.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFive days before the jihadists we came to call “9/11 terrorists” commandeered American airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, it was the same kind of beautiful, sunny day in Washington, DC that it was on that horrible day. On that sunny September 6, 2001, former U.S. Senator John Danforth became the first-ever U.S. Sudan Special Envoy, with the mandate of trying to bring peace to that war-torn region. For decades, the Islamist government of Sudan had been attempting forcibly to Islamize and Arabize all of Sudan, and waging genocidal jihad against those African Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional religions from the South, the Nuba Mountains, and elsewhere that resisted. Sudan’s so-called civil war had already resulted in the death of over 2.5 million people, mostly civilians, and the displacement of over 5 million.

Danforth was sworn in by President George W. Bush in a White House Rose Garden ceremony to which dozens of Diaspora Sudanese and their American activist friends were invited. Excitement was palpable that day. Since taking office, President Bush had made Sudan a priority. He spoke out against what he called one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, acknowledged the complicity of the Sudanese government, attempted to circumvent the orchestrated starvation of their own people by changing USAID’s methods of food distribution, and agreed to appoint a special envoy that would be his personal representative on U.S. Sudan policy.

We were full of hope that the appointment of Jack Danforth could eventually lead to a peace agreement that would bring about an end to the bombing, starvation, slavery, and other methods of jihad being used by the Government of Sudan against its own citizens. There were no illusions that this would be easy or quick in coming. The real work was just beginning, as we tried to see a piece of legislation, the Sudan Peace Act, passed in Congress. But although everyone was united that day in the appointment of the Sudan Special Envoy, the State Department was opposed to the stringent measures in the legislation. They particularly disliked an amendment sponsored by U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) that had already been passed by the House of Representatives, to invoke capital market sanctions against companies doing business with the Government of Sudan.

And so, in the days following the swearing in, as Special Envoy Danforth reviewed his portfolio and familiarized himself with the situation in Sudan, we worked in a coalition to strengthen U.S. Sudan policy and pass the Sudan Peace Act with the sanctions intact. As Congressman Bachus himself told the late heroic journalist A. M. Rosenthal,

Expanding U.S. sanctions in the area of capital markets access specifically targets what is the most significant revenue the Sudanese government has to prosecute the war. Obviously, the United States must send a new message and we must make that message stick. Stop the killing, stop the murder and torture, end the terror, or we end the investment. Can’t have it both ways. It is immoral to finance a war machine you know is wrong. America has to walk the walk.

In addition to opposing the immoral financing of a regime committing terrorism against its own people, we were convinced that the Sudanese regime was complicit in global terrorism and jihad. While some members of Congress also believed this and said so at House hearings, successive Administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama) continued to prefer the fantasy that the Sudan regime was a “good faith” partner both in cooperating in the War on Terrorism, and in dialoguing with their own victims in South Sudan. Intelligence received from sources on the ground in Sudan pointing to the regime’s connections to terrorists around the world was constantly downplayed or denied. So our Sudan coalition planned to publicly endorse at a press conference the House version of the Sudan Peace Act over the more watered-down Senate version. We were convinced that it was needed to stop genocide in Sudan and to help stop global Islamic terrorism. The event was to be in the Rayburn House Office Building at 9:00 A.M. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

In a cab, almost at the Rayburn Building, I heard on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. In those days, before we could conceive of the evil of which the Islamist agenda was capable, even I, familiar as I was with the atrocities taking place in South Sudan and with persecution of Christians in the Islamic world, assumed it was some horrible accident. Up in the Rayburn Building International Relations Committee hearing room, though, things became clear. All the other speakers and Sudan coalition members’ eyes were riveted on the television screen when I got there. News came that a second plane had crashed in New York. We, who so often reported on Russian Antonov cargo planes dropping bombs on starving South Sudanese civilians waiting for their food distribution, and women and children abducted and branded like cattle, had seen this level of monstrousness in Sudan, but never before in our own country.

Not long after that we heard that a plane was headed towards Washington, DC – probably targeting the White House or the U.S. Capitol. We were ushered quickly out of the room by Capitol Hill police. The congressional offices were all being evacuated and closed. No one knew what was happening. We surely couldn’t conceive that two more planes full of our fellow citizens would be used against us as weapons by the terrorists, or that the Americans on one of those planes, forcing a crash in a Shanksville, Pennsylvania field, would precede our valiant military troops in doing battle against Islamic jihad. In the midst of shock, my only continual thought was how clear it all was now – that now they would “get it.” Now they would understand what was really happening in Sudan.

I’m not sure I even knew what I meant by them “getting” it. I had not yet begun to articulate even to myself the problem that I saw with U.S. Sudan policy beyond the fact that it needed to be “strengthened.” It took 9/11 to make it clear that what was taking place in Sudan was being treated as a humanitarian issue by the U.S. government and that the root cause was never addressed. It was the same root cause that we saw in the suffocating smoke, burned flesh, incinerated body parts, collapsed towers, and obscene yawning chasms that indicated that we had crossed a line in history from which we could never return.

I think I hoped that the policymakers would now somehow understand that to deal with Sudan’s genocide as a humanitarian crisis was as absurd as to deal with 9/11 as merely a random criminal action. Even before we learned the magnitude of 9/11, we understood that this was a deliberate attack on us for who we were and what we represented. No less was this then, and still is, true in Sudan where the regime was attempting to eradicate the culture, identity, and very lives of all those who resisted the imposition of a pure Arabist Islamist identity. But U.S. Sudan policy did not reflect that reality.

It still doesn’t. Every success in U.S. Sudan policy -- the passage of the Sudan Peace Act, the North/South peace process, the North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and finally South Sudan’s referendum on secession leading to an independent nation of South Sudan -- has happened in spite of the absurdity of negotiating in good faith with a regime that operates through denials and deception. Failure – to stop the still ongoing genocide in Darfur, to fully implement the CPA, to speak out for Sudan’s other marginalized African ethnic groups like the Beja of Eastern Sudan and the Nubian civilization in the far north, and particularly now to protect the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State once again under active genocidal war – have occurred because the regime has never been held accountable for violating and dishonoring decades of agreements.

That September morning people flooded out of the city and then remained for hours without moving on every street and highway. I spent most of the day lying in the hatchback of a two-seater sports car, as four of us who had been at the press conference attempted to travel back to Virginia. Soon we had news of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. When we heard of the plane, headed for DC that went down in Pennsylvania, we knew that those brave passengers well may have saved our lives.

I will never forget September 11, 2001. It is with me always. Remembrances of more innocent times are marred by the knowledge that they were “before.”  I wish we could go back to a time when we were naïve. I wish we had not been rudely awakened to the kind of world that the people of South Sudan knew as reality, that the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State are experiencing right now. But on 9/11 I understood the irrevocable nature of what had taken place, and even before U.S. troops set off for battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, I knew that nothing would ever be the same.

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