Our Body Politic

A Latina Veteran on the U.S.’s Role in the World Today, Following the Corporate Money Pledged to Racial Equality, and Roundtable Guests Reflect on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

Episode Notes

Farai Chideya talks with Latina veteran Pam Campos-Palma about the role of the U.S. military in a changing geopolitical climate. Our legal analyst Tiffany Jeffers breaks down the new abortion and voting laws in Texas, and what she sees as a Republican tactic to chip away at constitutional rights. The Washington Post’s Tracy Jan details her team’s investigation into where $50 billion corporations  pledged last year to address racial inequality went. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Hagar Chemali of “Oh My World” and Sonya Ross of Black Women Unmuted ponder the aftermath of  the attacks of September 11, 2001.


0:00 Latina veteran Pam Campos-Palma on the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan

0:00 Legal analyst Tiffany Jeffers on the abortion ban and voting restrictions in Texas

0:00 Washington Post reporter Tracy Jan on corporate accountability for money pledged to address racial inequality

0:00 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Hagar Chemali of “Oh My World” and Sonya Ross of Black Women Unmuted on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thank you for listening to and sharing Our Body Politic. We're so grateful for all the listeners whose input has helped shape the show a year into production. We would not be here without you, so as you're listening today, do us a favor, go to Apple Podcast and please leave us a review. It helps more people find us and we read everyone. Your feedback matters to us. Thanks so much. This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. This week, we talk with our guests about the war in Afghanistan, the Texas abortion ban, and corporate accountability on the money they pledged for racial justice, plus the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Chideya: We'll begin with the future of the US military. Pam Campos-Palma served in the Air Force for over a decade. She was an operations and anti-terrorism intelligence analyst and deployed to Kyrgyzstan, Germany, Iraq, and Afghanistan. She's now the director of Peace & Security for the Working Families Party. She also leads Vets for the People, an effort to network progressive veterans and military families. I asked her to give us her perspective as a veteran and as an expert in security issues on the end of the war in Afghanistan and the future of US interventions and conflicts. Pam, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Pam Campos-Palma:

Thanks for having me.

Chideya: As this war ends in a very messy, public way, just as it started in a very public, but kind of anthemic way that assumed victory, I think about Afghan people. I think about geopolitics and I think about veterans, and I want to go through all of those. Tell me a little bit about what your thoughts are about the resettlement of Afghan refugees into the US and around the world, and what we should be keeping our eyes on.

Campos-Palma: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, if there's anything I hope that Americans realize, it's that wars are almost impossible to end. And the costs are so enormous. And the Afghan people are being forcibly displaced from their homeland because of constant conflict and violence. And so settling them in our lands, in the most powerful and moneyed country in the world, is the least we can do. I think that this could be an enormous opportunity actually for us, to practice the values we preach and to resettle so many of these Afghan families that are making their new homes here.

Chideya: How do you see gender issues playing out? Not so much on the ground in Afghanistan, but in how we think about this resettlement.

Campos-Palma: Fundamentally, war is about power. And power has so much to do with gender. I did counter-terrorism in the military and I was always so fascinated at how we disrespect everyday people's experience, whether you're poor or you grew up Black, or you grew up trans, or gender non-conforming. It's usually the most marginalized that most understand human security and insecurity. And so everyone keeps trying, for years, to understand how do we stop political violence. And the answer has always been women and fems, and the gender expansive community that is resistant against oppression and most of its fundamental forms. And so to me, it's stunning how wrong we got this war and how wrong we just continue to not understand war, when Afghanistan is just one of about eight places that the US is militarily engaged in.

Chideya: Yeah. I want to go deeper into gender, but before I do, I wanted to circle back to that question of what happens with veterans. My family includes a number of veterans. One of my cousins served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The sense I got, without talking about his private journey, was that it just began to seem unsustainable for a lot of enlisted people to imagine having a happy life while remaining in the military. There were the redeployments and the redeployments. Do you think that the military will essentially downsize and that there will be base closings, and troop reductions? What, in general, do you see in your crystal ball?

Campos-Palma: Oh, man. There's what I see and what I wish in my crystal ball. But I mean, to me, our existence as a planet, as a people, the military is the number one impact causer of climate instability because of how enormous our war machine is, right? If you think about all of the fighters and all of the jet fuel that we just dump in oceans, I mean the military carbon footprint itself, it is fundamental that we shrink. It also, it just makes good sense. The way that we've been doing things in terms of thinking that we could bring peace through arming ourselves to the teeth and playing bully is at the same time, bombing ourselves to democracy has consistently always been something that just has not really panned out well. And I think that now is the time for us to see a new way. And so on a baseline, anyone that calls themselves a defense or foreign policy, or national security expert would rationally understand that we need to lean the machine. Because the crisis that we face right now, right? Pandemic, climate insecurity, cyber warfare. These are not things we're going to be able to bomb and shoot away. And so there has to be a plan actually about how we melt down bases, right? Why do we have 800 bases worldwide? Are we actually keeping people safe or are we actually just being an occupying force to prove our supremacy?

Chideya: Pam, a lot of the idea has been that America should be a global power, perhaps an imperial power, in order to protect others. How does that work or not work?

Campos-Palma: For me, I think that it is more and more important for there not to be a conflation between leadership and saviorism. What is the difference between being a savior to others and not giving people agency versus being the kind of global leader and force that is of service and of help, but in different ways? And so I think that, yes, the United States love to... We like to think of ourselves as the top dog, the person in charge, but more and more as we move to a more cooperative globalized world, that does not make a lot of sense. And instead of moving towards more innovation, I see us just wanting to be more entrenched. And I think that the world is calling for us to choose differently.

Chideya: Now, I want to go a little bit deeper into your background. You are the child of a Honduran immigrant who immigrated while pregnant with you. And the US has a long economic and military history in Honduras, which includes economic exploitation using Honduras as a military base for the US, a sort of covert base during a lot of the Reagan era political intrigue in Central America. How did that shape how you processed your life decisions, in going into the Air Force and other things?

Campos-Palma: It's been a journey. I would say the thing that has most shaped my life has been having a single mother, who is working class, minimum wage earning, want to be American. Ever since I was little, she would dress me up. If you look at baby pictures of me, I am dressed in red, white, and blue, every single photo. She came here for me. She came here so that I wouldn't know the hardship and the violence that she knew. And she's the one who actually encouraged me to enlist in the military because she wanted me to have money for college. She wanted me to be someone, but more than anything, she wanted me to serve. She really believed in community service. She always had me at food pantries. And what's really ironic to me is that I enlisted in the Air Force, not really knowing anyone who had ever served like most working class people. There is definitely a dichotomy, I should say, around a core of Americans that come from a lot of military legacy and linearity, but there's also not as often discussed, the school to military pipeline kids, folks that are drafted because of the need to get out of poverty. And what's ironic to me is that when I enlisted and I was 18, when I deployed for the first time, for the war in Iraq, I didn't know about this history. I didn't have that political education, right? I didn't know what imperialism... What that word even meant. And so for me, there's something deeper here about what does it mean for a country to have its young people wanting to serve honorably? Not just to commit violence, but really because you want to help your country and your people. But then you go and fight these wars that actually don't seem like they're aligned with our highest values and are more about profiteering and conquest, than actual democracy and freedom.

Chideya: You've taken your experience and shaped service for different organizations, the Working Families Party, and also your own organization, Vets for the People. Can you tell us just briefly about your work with both of those?

Campos-Palma: Yeah. I mean, like I said, the military taught me a lot. I had great leaders and I had a lot of leaders that also showed me how power can corrupt. I've dedicated most of my life to accountability in the Pentagon, because that service of young people is so sacred and we should not take it for granted. And what I found interested in over the years and in my experience is seeing the stories of particularly working class, multicultural, military members and veterans be told very narrowly, very monolithically, and not be fully honest and representative of what does it mean to have these different experiences, but more than that, building our voice, building our political power, because it doesn't have to be this way, right? There are people that we elect into office that are accountable to us. They're accountable to our values. So that's been my project, to make sure that those of us that are fighting for social justice and freedom here at home, make sure that we're connecting it to the global justice fight and make sure that we, as veterans, are on the right side of freedom. Similar to those that fought in the Civil Rights Movement and The Farmworker Movement, veterans have been part of social movements in America, but we're often not discussed that way. And so that's our mission, is to help vets see themselves be part of change.

Chideya: Something we like to ask folks about is joy. In a time of great upheaval throughout the world, what's bringing you joy, peace, purpose right now?

Campos-Palma: As cliche as it sounds, I have never felt more clear about the opportunity we have to actually make change. Because as bad as things are... I mean, the Afghanistan withdrawal, the crisis of sexual violence in the military over the last year, I've seen the military community in such pain, but I've also seen those people channel their pain into power and say, "I'm going to be a helper." I see in my fellow veterans such a desire to be of service still. And so that gives me a lot of hope.

Chideya: Well, Pam, it's been absolutely great talking to you. Thank you so much.

Campos-Palma: Thank you.

Chideya: That was Pam Campos-Palma, Director of Peace & Security for the Working Families Party. Politicians across the country are already calculating the impact that the abortion ban in Texas will have on their chances in the midterms. The public remains widely supportive of Roe v. Wade, protecting a person's right to have an abortion. One national poll showed that more than two thirds of voters in last year's election said the ruling should be upheld and less than one third said it should be overturned. But before we examine the political repercussions of the Texas ban, we wanted to dig into the law itself. To do that, I invited Tiffany Jeffers back. She's our legal analyst here at Our Body Politic and a professor at Georgetown Law. Welcome, Tiffany.

Tiffany Jeffers: Hi, Farai. Thanks.

Chideya: So Tiffany, law professor, Mary Ziegler, called the Texas law sinister genius. And she wrote a piece for CNN Opinion that really broke down the difference between the 2018 Mississippi abortion law and this most recent Texas abortion law, and also the Supreme Court's response. Let's start out with the Texas law that the Supreme Court ruled on. What's the basis of that law?

Jeffers: So Farai, the basis of the Texas law is that it's allowing citizens, private citizens, to civilly sue abortion clinics. Anyone who would provide an abortion or anyone who obtains an abortion, to sue them civilly, and they can get up to $10,000. And it's solely based on a citizen doing sort of their Texas Walker ranger, deputy work of being a resident who was against abortion and is protecting the sanctity of life. No other reason, no other standard, other than personal offense.

Chideya: So this law, at least according to the Supreme Court, does not fly in the face of Roe v. Wade, is that correct?

Jeffers: So according to the five justices who wrote that paragraph, when they rendered the decision, it doesn't fly in the face of Wade because it's not state action. So currently, it's unconstitutional for a state to deny a woman the opportunity to obtain an abortion. This isn't state action. These are private citizens who are suing abortion clinics and who are suing women who seek to obtain abortions, again, not state actors, not legislators, not police departments, not mayors, governors, anyone like that. It's just your local... Your neighbor, who saw you get a ride to the clinic and is decided they are offended, they have standing and they're going sue you civilly.

Chideya: And again, in this piece by law professor, Mary Ziegler, who's at Florida State University College of Law, she contrasted the Texas law with a Mississippi law from 2018, that does seem very much to fly in the face of Roe. But what she said was that either way, one of these statutes could succeed in dramatically restricting access to abortion. Is it sort of like a pick one or the other for people who are seeking to end access to abortion?

Jeffers: I think Professor Ziegler is right about that. Yeah. So we have these two challenges, two row. One in Texas where private citizens, again, can sue abortion clinics for providing abortions or individual people who obtain an abortion, or individual people who aid and abet, the language from the statute, in anyone getting an abortion. And then this Mississippi law that is trying to make the viability term shorter. So right now viability under row is at 26 weeks. That just means that a fetus can't survive outside of the womb before 26 weeks. The Mississippi Legislature is trying to reduce that to 16 weeks. Again, reducing the time that a woman's able to get an abortion. And those are just two of many, many efforts over the course of the last 20 to 30 years that have challenged access to abortion, a woman's right, to have bodily autonomy and make these decisions over her body. These are the two most successful challenges to this point.

Chideya: What relationship do you think that the idea of individuals trying to enforce a legal structure has in light of the way that vigilantism has been used against Black Americans, many times over, and also used in the January 6th insurrection?

Jeffers: Farai, I've been thinking about that a lot. And it seems to be a tactic gaining momentum in the GOP to really deputize and privatize enforcement. Meaning you build this fear and rage and sense of entitlement and enforcement in individual citizens, and that empowers and emboldens them to go out and pursue "justice" on their own. So for the insurrection, we saw primarily white men storm the Capitol in what they believe was an effort to stop the steal. Following that big lie and thinking that they're pursuing justice in their eyes. We have something similar that's going to happen in Texas. People are deputized to pursue what they believe to be justice by privately suing, civilly, these clinics, and anyone who would try to get an abortion, which is a personal decision. And it's a personal constitutional decision before viability at this point under law.

Chideya: Let's move on to another huge debate, the one over voting rights. Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, signed the most wide reaching of several bills affecting voting rights into law. That is SB 1, and there's other more targeted bills. Let's walk through, first, SB 1 and how it might or might not hold up under challenge.

Jeffers: So it's really difficult to say what's going to stand under this current Supreme Court because they've been so inconsistent with what precedent they're choosing to follow and what precedent they're not. SB 1, what I think it does is not sweeping, broadly sweeping suppressive tactics, but small innocuous changes that I think will be difficult for progressive grassroots organizations to challenge on a macro level. Because it's going to be difficult to show the specific violation of individual groups, especially since the voting rights act has been gutted, as far as the enforcement prong is concerned.

Chideya: There's also other Texas laws that are more targeted. One bans Texas voters from registering using a post office box as their address. Another allows the Secretary of State to cut funds for voter registrars that fail to remove people from certain roles. I mean, there are a wide variety of other statutes here, what's the impact of that approach?

Jeffers: It's a multi-layered approach to really suppress, by any means necessary, the votes of individuals and groups collectively that are going to have a more progressive agenda and a more progressive outlook when they cast ballots. And so if you can suppress votes of individuals who need a post office box, individuals with disabilities and just break it down versus making those overt widespread changes, then I think you catch more of the people that you want to eliminate. And so that's what the Republicans are doing here. They're being more strategic and more specific about whose vote they want to suppress, but doing it in a way that doesn't show any discriminatory impact or intent. And so it's going to... It might be successful. It's dangerous. It's scary.

Chideya: Now, as we look at all of this that's going on, as you teach your students at Georgetown Law, and as you yourself look at these issues, what do you enjoy about analyzing this kind of crazy time in American jurisprudence?

Jeffers: I have the privilege of teaching new lawyers that they are not stuck analyzing the law within this framework that is based in white male supremacy. And teaching and providing them with tools on how the law should be used to maximize justice for all, how the rule of law should be used to create a society that provides an equal opportunity for everyone. It's really a huge privilege and the privileges of the students are desperate to learn. Georgetown had over 14,000 applications for their first year class this year, record numbers. And that class that came in and started last week is 40% students of color and 54% women. I'm really proud of that. I'm really excited to be teaching these students. Law school is no longer a place where you go because you got a poli sci degree and you don't know what to do next. It's a place where you go to really think about ways to implement long-term systemic change. And I see that in my students every day.

Chideya: Tiffany, thank you so very much.

Jeffers: Thanks, Farai. It's always a pleasure to be here.

Chideya: That was law professor, Tiffany Jeffers, Our Body Politic's legal analyst. Corporations play a huge role in US politics. They fund campaigns for elected officials, including those who back state laws like the Texas abortion ban. Last year, in the midst of protest over the murder of George Floyd, dozens of corporations made unprecedented financial commitments towards racial equality. A recent Washington Post investigation found that the biggest public companies and their foundations, collectively pledged nearly $50 billion, that's billion with a B, to address racial inequality, but did all that money make an impact? A year after Floyd's murder, Tracy Jan and her colleagues at The Post investigated the reality behind the pledges. They narrowed their search to the 50 publicly traded companies they deemed most influential and they tracked financial commitments that were made externally, not pledges to increase diversity internally. She's here to talk me through her findings. Welcome, Tracy.

Tracy Jan: Thank you, Farai.

Chideya: In your reporting with your colleagues, you talk about America's 50 biggest public companies committing $50 billion, with a B, to addressing racial inequality. So what did you find out in the course of doing your reporting?

Jan: So after we started collecting this data, what we wanted to do was divide the money into different categories. And what we found was that the vast majority of the commitments were focused on economic equality. So things like home ownership loans, investments in Black banks, investments into HBCUs. There are healthcare investments that were separate. There were education investments that were separate and the criminal justice. So we were trying to divide them into different categories. It was imperfect, but it was a way to figure out, at a glance, where most of this money is going. More than 90% of those commitments were actually in a form of loans and investments, basically things that companies could profit from. And we were surprised to find that only a small, small percentage, basically $70 million, with an M, was dedicated towards criminal justice reform. The very cause that sent millions of Americans into the streets last summer in protest.

Chideya: Explain a little bit more about how a company pledging alone could actually still be benefiting their own bottom line.

Jan: So the 90% that went towards loans and investments were mostly in the form of mortgage loans. For example, J.P. Morgan Chase pledged more than $28 billion and Bank of America pledged $15 billion. And those were in loans to Black and Hispanic communities. So when you're making a loan, you're getting interest. And so companies are making money off of loans that they make.

Chideya: Yep. And so essentially this funding, the pledge number, is not purely altruistic is what you're saying?

Jan: That's right. And it's not necessarily a negative thing. There's a huge home ownership gap. And so it's a huge problem that banks should be addressing. So J.P. Morgan Chase is trying to increase Black home ownership by 40,000 families in the next five years. Bank of America is trying to do it by 60,000 low income and moderate income families over the next five years. And they're assuming that a lot of those families will be Black. Wells Fargo had made a previous commitment that they're going to increase Black home ownership by 250,000 families over the next 10 years. The home ownership gap in America, between Black and white families, is about five million families. That's five million people. So those numbers don't add up to five million. And those are some of the biggest banks that make mortgages. When you talk to certain economists, Bill Spriggs at Howard University, for example, he's saying these are loans that these banks we're supposed to make all along if they didn't discriminate. And that it's small in comparison to what he called their moral deficit and given the amount of profits that they make. Not only J.P. Morgan Chase, but Bank of America and Wells Fargo have all previously settled claims for charging Black and Latino home buyers, higher rates than white borrowers who have similar credit scores, similar financial profiles. These banks denied allegations of discrimination, but we know that big banks targeted Black homeowners, Black borrowers during the last financial crisis with predatory loans. And that Black home owners were also disproportionately foreclosed upon. Not to mention the banks' historical roles in redlining. A lot of people who study this, civil rights attorneys, for example, say that in addition to pledging to increase mortgage lending to Black families, banks should really be looking internally at their policies. Where are the racial biases within that? And how do you fix those particular issues?

Chideya: You also looked into how different types of financial institutions interact with each other, like for example, smaller Black-owned banks and pledges coming from larger banks. Can you explain a little bit about how money flows between different financial institutions and what that has to do with this?

Jan: See, of all these companies that have corporate goodwill, they're trying to do what they think is the right thing to expedient thing by infusing all these Black banks with cash. And again, this is not charity. This is their corporate cash that they're going to be depositing into Black banks, that they fully expect to get back when they need it and get returns on it. The problem is regulators require banks to have a certain amount of equity. The more deposits you have, the more equity you need. Banks make money, first of all, by loaning out the posits that companies put in. But if they've loaned out these deposits and depositors want their money back, they don't have enough equity to give that money back. Separately, you have the big banks, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America. And those are the companies that are more likely to invest in these small Black banks in terms of investing equity. And that's because they get credit for it. They're expected by law to meet the credit needs of underserved communities. And by investing in these small Black banks, they get credit for it. Regulators consider their record of investing in these banks when they evaluate their applications from mergers, and acquisitions, and branch openings.

Chideya: Yeah. In this really substantial report, you go through these four major areas where money is flowing or not flowing, home ownership, Black banks, both of which we've talked about, but then also, criminal justice and education. And you found that when it came to making investments in HBCUs, for example, there was a huge discrepancy in who was able to receive money and who was not?

Jan: That's right. So a lot of the brand name schools as you would expect, the Spelmans, the Morehouses, Howards, received a lot of the money of the 101 accredit to HBCUs. We found that these 50 companies contributed money to about 50 schools, so only half of the schools. And the vast majority of them, a lot of the smaller, lesser well-known schools, received less than $200,000. And those are for small things like campus improvement grants.

Chideya: Right. So let's talk about criminal justice in these pledges and contributions.

Jan: Yeah. So we were really surprised that criminal justice was such a small percentage of the actual grants. There were only about $4.2 billion in grants. It's actually less than 1% of the net income that these 50 companies made in the last year. So proportionate to how much they earn is not a huge amount. What we found though, was that only eight companies out of these 50, actually gave any money towards any organization affiliated with the Black Lives Matter Movement. What was more common were companies committing money to overall criminal justice reform, such as the equal justice initiative that focuses more on mass incarceration and less on policing reform or defunding the police.

Chideya: Tracy, thanks so much for joining us.

Jan: Thank you so much for having me.

Chideya: That was Tracy Jan, reporter for The Washington Post, covering the intersection of race and the economy. This week on Sippin' the Political Tea, I'm joined by Hagar Chemali, a foreign policy expert and host of Oh My World on YouTube. She worked in government for 12 years, including at the White House, the Treasury Department, and the State Department. Welcome back to Our Body Politic, Hagar.

Hagar Chemali: Thank you so much, Farai. It's great to be here.

Chideya: I'm also joined by Sonya Ross, a former White House reporter with the Associated Press, who covered President George W. Bush during the 9/11 terrorist attack. She's the founder and editor-in-chief of Black Women Unmuted, a news analysis site focused on Black women in politics. Welcome to Our Body Politics, Sonya.

Sonya Ross: Thank you, Farai. It's such a pleasure to be here with you.

Chideya: Well, we will dive in on the anniversary of September 11th, which we are marking this month.

CNN Clip: This just in, you are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Chideya: That was CNN's Breaking News on that sobering morning. Sonya, you were one of the few journalists assigned to travel with former President George W. Bush after the Twin Towers were hit. What was the moment where you understood that there had been this national security incident of tremendous scale and that you would be continuing to follow the president as he reacted to it?

Ross: I was actually in a van toward the tail end of the presidential motorcade, as the President was headed over to Emma Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. It truly sank in once the president made his remarks at the elementary school. It was sort of a slide up to that grand realization. I went from my colleague calling me on my mobile phone while I was in the [inaudible 00:32:19] to say, "A plane hit the World Trade Center." So I was thinking small plane, twin engine Cessna, somebody made a wrong turn. From that to no, a jet hit the World Trade Center, to two jets hit the World Trade Center, to finally the president saying in his remarks, "We have had a terrorist attack." So the word terrorist coming out of his mouth, the notion of terrorism, is when I really grasped the magnitude of the day.

Chideya: And you followed the President onto Air Force One. Many, many years ago, I got to do pool reporter duty on Air Force One and it's quite impressive under normal circumstances. But at least, from what I remember, you have different officials who come and do briefings in the back of the plane where the reporters are. What were you told and by whom, while you were in flight? And where were you headed?

Ross: Well, we were told very little, first of all. It's still operated pretty much that way. We had to wait for someone to come back to talk to us. So we were given little spoonfuls of information and we realized we had no true destination after it became clear from the way the plane ascended or banked, that we were circling.

Chideya: Yeah.

Ross: We had absolutely no idea where we were headed, for maybe a couple of hours. We were watching a local news feed. I guess, some camera crew in Louisiana, did what local affiliates do. They dispatch a crew to the nearest military base to do stand-ups and things like that. So a local affiliate cameraman captured footage of Air Force One landing at this particular air base. And we saw it on the TV feed on the plane. And that's how we knew we were landing.

Chideya: So Hagar, let me go to you. We will circle back to Sonya. Where were you on 9/11?

Chemali: Farai, when you played that clip at the beginning of the show, I had goosebumps all over my body. I'm sure Sonya did as well. When it happened, I was in New York City. I was in undergrad at the time, I went to Barnard College, I was a junior. The area where I was, which is all the way uptown, right? So it's the opposite end really of Manhattan, was eerily quiet. And then, when the second plane hit, and on TV, watched the towers go down, my first thought was that it was a terrorist attack. And my first thought was that it was Al-Qaeda. And the reason I thought that was it, it was a topic I was studying at the time. The year before that, I had written a large paper for one of my political science classes on the biggest threat to the United States, being Al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism in general, at that time, and terrorism.

Chideya: So you totally called it.

Chemali: I would like to say... I mean, I'd like to say that. It's not that I wanted to be right about it. And so that was my feeling right at that moment. And so we're watching the press, my friends and I are all watching, praying that we know nobody in the towers. And then you had flocks of people in my area, at least, which were mostly students rushing to give blood, to... Because it was the thing we all thought, "Well, what can we do?" But sadly... And we all donated, but sadly, everybody perished in that attack. And so donating blood was not exactly helpful in the moment.

Chideya: Yeah. We had Nadia Hashimi, the Afghan-American novelist and organizer and in her most recent novel, she has a character who is a young doctor, a young female doctor, on 9/11. And it's a scene where the hospital is kind of panicked, but empty because no patients come because they all died. And they're bracing for an onslaught of patients. I happen to be in South Africa on 9/11. I had gone there for the World Conference against Racism as a reporter and observer, and got to meet with Nelson Mandela, President Mandela, during that trip, after the 9/11 attacks. Absolutely fascinating. And I was actually flying from Zimbabwe where my father and family on my paternal side were, back to South Africa when the planes hit. I landed and my host picked me up and said, "The Twin Towers had fallen." And I did not believe him. I refused to believe him until we went to his office and I saw it on the television. And I will always remember that for all of the typical emotional reasons, but also that my reaction was to deny the truth, just to say, "This can't be happening." And to have some compassion for all the times where a moment in history comes up and people are in disbelief. Sonya, what was the emotional tone for you on that day? You were doing your job and you told Marie Claire in an article they did, that you felt it was a moment where you couldn't come up short because they wouldn't let another Black female reporter do this work. But inside, how were you feeling?

Ross: I was very much a study in contradictions. I was calm yet panicked. I was aggressive yet subtle. I was aware and checked out. It was really one of the strangest, emotional days I've ever had. I think what helped me a lot in terms of maintaining my cool was that my sister got through and prayed with me before we took off. Now cell phones just weren't working that day. Signals just evaporated because of the collapse of the tower and disruption in the cell service. So the fact that she was able to get through on my mobile phone, just felt divine to me. And I asked her... She is a minister. And I asked her to lie to our mother about where I was all day. So that helped me to stay calm, just knowing that I prayed with my sister. I got a chance to say something to someone in my family. And then the rest of the day, because our environment was just so controlled, it was hard to believe there was so much anguish and terror on the ground. And when we did land on the ground, we were in the military's custody. So just the pure, bucolic nature of the weather that day, coupled with the jarring image of soldiers in full combat gear and tanks in plain sight, F-16 fighter jets on the wing, those were the real clues that we had of the severity of what was unfolding on the ground. So calm and controlled, yet panicked was how I felt all day.

Chideya: Thank you so much for that Sonya. And Hagar, I want to broaden out a bit, or maybe collapse time a bit. We have this 20 year arc, two decades after the terrorist attack and the US is pulling out of Afghanistan. What happens to Afghanistan now?

Chemali: Oh, just crazy, right? To think about this 20 year arc and all of it colliding with what just happened in Afghanistan, right? And so I went into the US government very soon after September 11 and started working in counter-terrorist financing. And between what the Defense Department was doing, obviously, and all of the arms of the US government at the time, we were really undermining Al-Qaeda's operations. There was a lot of reason to feel more secure. And things in Afghanistan were looking pretty good. We had unseated the Taliban. We had significantly undermined Al-Qaeda and its operations. We had targeted a number of their leaders. And then things started to fester pretty quickly. The Taliban continued to have a lifeline. A lot of them moved to Pakistan. We struggled of course, with setting up an Afghan government, which was by the way, not the goal originally. And so the mission kind of changed into this nation building exercise, which the United States does not do very well. Then we killed bin Laden under President Obama. President Obama wanted to leave as I'm sure you know. And the Defense Department convinced him instead to do a surge of military because they were afraid that the Taliban would take over again. So he surged the military. Then he knew that doing a deal with the Taliban would be necessary to leave in a stable fashion and not lose the whole country. But President Obama was not able to do that. President Trump did this deal, but the deal... A lot of folks, and I would argue as well, that the deal ended up emboldening the Taliban. It gave too much away. And then President Biden wanted to live up to that deal to end the American war there and withdraw the US military. And now what you have, it is only the end of the American war in Afghanistan. The situation on the ground will remain extremely tense. Conflict will continue. Conflict has continued in certain areas of Afghanistan, where the Taliban has had full control for a while. Things have returned to how they were in the 90s, right? Women and girls can not go to school or have jobs. They have put a freeze on everybody working. They have put a freeze on anybody accessing their bank accounts, except for very nominal amounts. I've spoken to a number of Afghans who tell me that their number one concern at the moment is how to get food on the table. The Taliban is going around, trying to give these statements of tolerance. As someone who's worked in terrorism a long time, I have no reason to believe that.

Chideya: Let me jump in and toss this one to Sonya. This week in The Washington Post, Carlos Lozada wrote that 9/11 was a test and the US failed. Knowing what you know as a reporter, do you agree with that assessment? And listening to Hagar?

Ross: I have to say yes. And that's just my personal opinion. I remember on the early days, after the 9/11 attacks, and I'm talking 9/12, 9/13, 9/20, what was said is that we now face a new terror threat, that we have to fight a new type of war. This war does not look like any war we've had. The enemy is invisible and kind of a ubiquitous. It can be coming from anywhere. And we have to be prepared to defend against that. And on the ground, in America, there was this wave of patriotism of we have to protect the USA. We have to do whatever we, as individuals, can do to protect the USA. There was, I felt, a gradual surrender of privacy that the citizenry gave into for the sake of battling this invisible terror threat and never was it really pinpointed. Where's it coming from? What is it exactly? And then suddenly, not only did we have to have a presence in Afghanistan, we had to go into Iraq.

Chideya: As you're talking, Sonya, I thought of a couple of different films. One is The Feeling of Being Watched by Assia Bendaoui, about surveillance of Muslim Americans. And then there's another one more recent from FRONTLINE, In the Shadow of 9/11, which looks into the case of the Liberty City Seven, who were black men from Miami, who were accused of plotting with Al-Qaeda, but they had no ties to the organization. So there were certainly, over time, evidence of overreach to a very extreme level. I want to get ready to wrap it up, but as we do, what should we take away from this moment in history? I mean, obviously we can't synthesize it. We're still in this moment. 20 years later on the anniversary of 9/11 and the end of the war in Afghanistan. But what should we, at least, be thinking about or looking at? I'm going to start with you, Hagar.

Chemali: As you had mentioned earlier, you have this 20 year arc and in some way, we're back to where we started. We did undermine Al-Qaeda. There was a reason why you didn't see another 9/11 after that. And we learned a lot of lessons for our own government. But the thing that I think will now fundamentally change going forward, having looked back now at the last 20 years, and of course, hindsight is always 2020, is how the United States uses military intervention or military force to achieve national security and foreign policy goals. I believe that the experiences in Afghanistan will fundamentally change that. And that is not a partisan statement. I think that any president who comes into office, he or she, will now look at how we use our military, what we do very well, what we don't do well in different ways.

Chideya: And Sonya, what should we be taking away from this moment or thinking about?

Ross: We think about terrorism, every year at 9/11. And then we tend to set it aside because terrorism in our minds is still Al-Qaeda or ISIS, or some threat, some external threat. And we've never really decided that terror is a threat within and without. I wish that passion about going after terrorists, who attack our country, want to tear it apart, were as strong a commitment when we're talking domestic terror. Because the truth is that domestic terror, was then and is still, all the same threat that it has been from the day it first surfaced in this country, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. So I really believe that we could, as a nation, put the fervor that we had about terrorism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and its proper perspective and have a larger focus on terrorism itself, whether external or internal in this country.

Chideya: We're going to wrap it up there. Thanks for joining me, Hagar and Sonya.

Chemali: Thank you.

Ross: Thank you Farai.

Chideya: That was foreign policy expert and host of YouTube's, Oh My World, Hagar Chemali. And Sonya Ross, former White House reporter with the Associated Press and founder and editor-in-chief of Black Women Unmuted. Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by LWC. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua is executive producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Our senior producers are Paulina Velasco and Sarah McClure. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our political Booker is Bridget McAllister. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt and Veda Chand. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Katie McGrath and J. J. Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “A Latina Veteran on the U.S.’s Role in the World Today, Following the Corporate Money Pledged to Racial Equality, and Roundtable Guests Reflect on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. September 10, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/