By Cynthia Bogard
I think I witnessed history last Thursday, June 16, 2005.
It didn't start off on a very promising note. I was denied entrance to the media-packed, basement room next door to where they stack dirty Capitol cafeteria trays. But as I was standing in the hall wondering what to do, Congressman Conyers passed by and we nodded to each other right before he stepped across the threshold of the closet-sized room, jaw set, determined to change the course of our forlorn nation. He was followed by some of the other 122 Congressional signers of the letter asking President Bush for an explanation of the contents of the Downing Street Memo.
It was a shabby setting made necessary because the Republican House leaders refused to grant their colleagues so much as a decent room in which to ask probably the most important question ever asked of presidents: Did you lead us into a war under false pretences? Note to House leadership: This one is NOT, repeat, NOT going away, so you might as well book us some space.
Most of the 35 House members who came to what was termed a "forum" were denied even the dignity of a seat in the cramped and airless room. There were only eight chairs for Congress members. The rest had to stand, choir-like in rows behind those seated and rotate in and out of the chairs when it came their turn to question the witnesses.
With the tableau of Representatives in place, I suddenly had an intense flashback to the beginning of a film I'd seen last summer (Was it only last summer?). The first time I'd been brought to tears during that film was when Michael Moore showed us footage of the Congressional Black Caucus, pleading with the Senate to stop the certification of the 2000 election so that the complaints of disenfranchised Florida voters could be investigated. Those Congress members spoke eloquently and passionately but not a single Senator could be convinced to side with them, so, as Vice President of the United States and therefore President of the Senate, Al Gore was forced to wield the gavel on his own defeat.
Here they were again, and this time, I immediately sensed, they were in the fight for as long as it takes, no matter the cost. Some of the most courageous words I've heard from government officials for a long time came from these members of Congress as they made statements about the crucial importance of what we have learned from the Memo and the subsequent documents released to the press by some brave and well-placed Brit and the crucial need for an in-depth investigation. And this time they were joined by many other Congress members who came to voice their views and ask their questions, even though the Republican House leadership had scheduled an unprecedented eleven floor votes during the informal hearing time.
I confess, at first I had a moment of doubt.
Can a group of determined minority-party Congress members and assorted activists and bloggers really do what it takes to stop this needless war and bring this rogue administration to heel? Are these few going to be the only profiles in courage? Are the rest of us going to give the fabrications behind this needless war a pass because it's summer, because we can't be bothered to learn about it, because we're deluded by fear, or cynical or just plain hopeless or because we're busy countering ridiculous attacks or because we've been cowed by the Rove character assassination machine? (Fight on, Senator Durbin!)
My doubts worsened. When I was barred from the hearing room, I hiked through the DC summer swelter the few blocks to the Democratic National Committee headquarters where, we'd been told, the hearings would be video-streamed to us via C-Span. It was refreshing to be able to enter a building in Washington without passing through airport security protocol. We didn't even have to sign in if we indicated interest in attending the video broadcast. Anyone could enter.
Sometime shortly after I found a seat, I was handed a several-page, single-spaced document that I never read until many hours later when I learned that DNC Chair Howard Dean was being made to apologize because so-called "anti-Semitic" literature was being handed out at DNC headquarters. I then looked at the pages I'd been handed, which consisted of a paranoid and authorless diatribe in part insisting that Israel "knew" when the World Trade Center would be attacked and got "their people" out safely. This stuff has been circulating the Internet for years. It's not even news.
Who knows who handed this thing to me? Perhaps it was even a Republican. The people at the front desk didn't demand an oath of loyalty or scrutinize one's personal papers prior to entrance. So the DNC is now supposed to ensure that only the "right" people are admitted to its building and the "right" literature is disseminated to its audiences? Howard, why do you bother replying to accusations like that?
C-Span cut the feed at 3:30 after only an hour of the hearings and went to a late-breaking crucial story about the refurbishment of the Baltimore waterfront. So we listened to the forum for a few minutes more through a radio held in front of a microphone and then were told we'd have to vacate the room because they had to use it for somebody's fundraiser (Thanks for your support, DNC!). Note to Howard Dean: This one is NOT, repeat, NOT going away, so you might as well book us some space. And talk to C-Span, would you?
When I went back to the Capitol basement (after going through the security protocol again, of course) and begged a bit, they let me in. The four main witnesses,
Joe Wilson (http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/288 ),
Cindy Sheehan (http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/287 ),
Ray McGovern (http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/289 ) and
John Bonifaz (http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/?q=node/286 ) were passionate, persuasive and committed citizens and the questions the Congress members asked pulled no punches. I witnessed citizens and their elected officials together pursuing the truth behind the mess in Iraq and it made me feel hopeful for the first time in a long time. It was the combined power of their convictions that convinced me I was witnessing history, the beginning of the end of our national nightmare. (Yes, Dana Milbank, I was at the same event you were at. I'm just not as terminally cynical as you, I guess.)
Our current situation is just too much to bear. We've had have two suspect presidential elections in a row. Our leaders have imprisoned people indefinitely without representation or trial and called it "essential." Our leaders are trying to seat an ambassador to the U.N. who has castigated the entire idea of the United Nations. Our nation has credibly been accused of torturing and humiliating people in custody using their most sacred beliefs and cultural fears as weapons. Our nation's reputation in the world has been sullied, possibly irreparably. And now it has been confirmed at the highest levels by our only real allies, the British, that our leaders lied to us and to the world about the need for this war and about the evidence used to sell it to us.
Our leaders have dismissed people who have always questioned this war and predicted its aftermath as mere "focus groups," and vilified us as America haters, even traitors. Note to Bush Administration: We take no joy at all in having been proved right.
Now some in the press have accused us of developing a "paranoid theory," called us partisans only interested in "old news" ("the memos are not the Dead Sea Scrolls") and termed the Conyers' forum "playing house." Note to LATimes, New York Times and Washington Post: This one is NOT, repeat, NOT going away, so you might as well book us some space. And let's cut the sarcasm, shall we?
Meanwhile, reality doesn't stop for our summer vacations. The war with its death and internments continues. Now I read that Kellogg Brown & Root Services, a subsidiary of Cheney's Haliburton, was just given a multimillion dollar government contract to build a new prison for the long-term detention of detainees in Guantánamo. Expansion? Of Gitmo?
Haven't you had enough? Aren't you ready to throw open the windows and yell in vintage Network style, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!?" The people in that cramped basement room in Our Nation's Capital have had it. They have had enough. And though their courage and conviction made me sense that I was witnessing history last Thursday, it's going to take a lot more than them to stop the madness. Have YOU had enough?
Cynthia Bogard (Cynthia.J.Bogard@hofstra.edu ) is a sociology professor at Hofstra University in New York.