Tag Archives: 911

15 years after Sept. 11: How the unity we forged broke apart

For a time, it felt like the attack that shattered America had also brought it together. After Sept. 11, signs of newfound unity seemed to well up everywhere, from the homes where American flags appeared virtually overnight to the Capitol steps where lawmakers pushed aside party lines to sing “God Bless America” together.

That cohesion feels vanishingly distant as the 15th anniversary of the attacks arrives Sunday. Gallup’s 15-year-old poll of Americans’ national pride hit its lowest-ever point this year. In a country that now seems carved up by door-slamming disputes over race, immigration, national security, policing and politics, people impelled by the spirit of common purpose after Sept. 11 rue how much it has slipped away.

Jon Hile figured he could help the ground zero cleanup because he worked in industrial air pollution control. So he traveled from Louisville, Kentucky, to volunteer, and it is not exaggerating to say the experience changed his life. He came home and became a firefighter.

Hile, who now runs a risk management firm, remembers it as a time of communal kindness, when “everybody understood how quickly things could change … and how quickly you could feel vulnerable.”

A decade and a half later, he sees a nation where economic stress has pushed many people to look out for themselves. Where people stick to their comfort zones.

“I wish that we truly remembered,” he says, “like we said we’d never forget.”

Terrorism barely registered among Americans’ top worries in early September 2001, but amid economic concerns, a Gallup poll around then found only 43 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going.

Then, in under two hours on Sept. 11, the nation lost nearly 3,000 people, two of its tallest buildings and its sense of impregnability. But out of the shock, fear and sorrow rose a feeling of regaining some things, too _ a shared identity, a heartfelt commitment to the nation indivisible.

Stores ran out of flags. Americans from coast to coast cupped candle flames and prayed at vigils, gave blood and billions of dollars, cheered firefighters and police. Military recruits cited the attacks as they signed up.

Congress scrubbed partisanship to pass a $40 billion anti-terrorism and victim aid measure three days after the attacks, and approval ratings for lawmakers and the president sped to historic highs. A special postage stamp declared “United We Stand,” and Americans agreed: A Newsweek poll found 79 percent felt 9/11 would make the country stronger and more unified.

“I really saw people stand up for America. … And I was very proud of that,” recalls Maria Medrano-Nehls, a retired state library agency worker in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her foster daughter and niece, Army National Guard Master Sgt. Linda Tarango-Griess, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004.

Now, Medrano-Nehls thinks weariness from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and combative politics have pried Americans apart, and it pains her to think of the military serving a country so torn.

Larry Brook can still picture the crowd at a post-9/11 interfaith vigil at an amphitheater in Pelham, Alabama. The numbers seemed a tangible measure of an urge to come together.

Now? “I don’t think we’re anywhere close,” says Brook, who publishes Southern Jewish Life magazine. To him, political partisanship and clashes over Middle East policy are walling off middle ground.

Three days after 9/11, Joseph Esposito was at smoldering ground zero as Republican President George W. Bush grabbed a bullhorn and vowed the attackers “will hear all of us soon.” The moment became an emblem of American strength and resolve, and Esposito, then the New York Police Department’s top uniformed officer, was struck by “the camaraderie, the unity” of those days.

He remembers the support police enjoyed then, and how much the tone had changed by the time of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, when police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, many of whom said cops unjustly rounded and roughed them up. Now the city’s emergency management commissioner, Esposito has watched from the sidelines as a national protest movement has erupted in recent years from police killings of unarmed black men, and as police themselves have been killed by gunmen claiming vengeance.

These days, Esposito hopes his job can be unifying. He wants people to feel that the city helps neighborhoods equally to handle disaster. “The 1 percenters should not be better prepared than the 99 percent,” he says.

“If everyone feels they’re getting their fair share,” he adds, “it fosters better feelings toward one another.”

For all the signs of kinship after Sept. 11, the first retribution attack came just four days later, authorities said.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead while placing flowers on a memorial at his Mesa, Arizona, gas station. Prosecutors said the gunman mistook Sodhi, an Indian Sikh immigrant, for an Arab Muslim.

Seeing hundreds of people gather in solidarity on the night of his brother’s death showed me “the greatness of unity,” says Rana Singh Sodhi, of Gilbert, Arizona. But in the last two years, he’s felt a “change toward hatred again.” He worries politicians are stirring animosity toward immigrants and minorities.

So does Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali.

After 9/11, he invited first responders for tea and coffee at the Northeast Denver Islamic Center to show appreciation and emphasize that Muslims “are regular Americans.” Now, Ali, who is African-American, believes Muslims and people of color are being demonized with “incendiary and divisive” remarks.

“We can’t act like racism hasn’t been a part of all this,” he says.

Can the United States feel united again?

Some Americans fear it will take another catastrophe, if even that can shift the climate. Others are looking to political leaders to set a more collaborative tone, or to Americans themselves to make an effort to understand and respect one another.

When Sonia Shah thinks about the push and pull of American unity since the attacks that killed her father, Jayesh, at the World Trade Center, she pictures a rock hitting a pond.

The innermost ripple, that’s the tight circle of support that came together around the people most directly affected by tragedy. Outside it, bigger and more diffuse, are bands of debate over policies and politics in the wake of 9/11.

“We usually see the outer rings of the arguments,” says the Baylor University senior. “But I think there always is a current of unity that goes underneath things.”

 

Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists P. Solomon Banda in Denver; Nati Harnik in Lincoln, Nebraska; Mike Householder in Farmington Hills, Michigan; Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky; David R. Martin in New York; Jay Reeves in Pelham, Alabama; and Brian Skoloff in Gilbert, Arizona.

Who killed Brittany Zimmermann?

It is April 2, 2008. Madison college student Brittany Zimmermann walks home from an exam. In the middle of the day, in a neighborhood five blocks from the Capitol, the 21-year-old Marshfield native meets her murderer.

In broad daylight, the killer breaks down the outside door and then the inner apartment door. As she fights for her life, Zimmermann calls 911. The tape records screams and struggle, but the dispatcher hears nothing intelligible and does not follow up. Police are not sent. The line goes dead.

Zimmermann is beaten and strangled. She is stabbed repeatedly with “a weapon similar in nature to one possessing a blade length from 2 to 5 inches, blade width of 1.5 to 2 cm., and with a non-prominent hilt,” says Dane County Coroner John Stanley. Half the wounds extend through her rib cage and penetrate her heart. She dies of a “complexity of traumatic injuries.” Cellphone parts litter the crime scene.

No valuables are missing. There is no explicable motive. Sexual assault? “I don’t think I should comment on this for the sake of the investigation,” says Jordan Gonnering, Zimmermann’s roommate and fiancé. He found the body.

Bungled investigation

So began a drama played out in the national news: a murder made more tragic by the botched call center response. “Student’s 911 call falls on deaf ears,” reported ABC. “Slain student called 911, but no one came,” said CNN.

Authorities announced a $40,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Zimmermann’s killer or killers.

Within hours, unknown to anyone, Madison Police have a prime suspect in custody, held on an unrelated charge. A recently unsealed search warrant revealed a belated DNA test that links the man to Zimmermann.

Those closest to Zimmermann now consider the case a bungled investigation.

Gonnering has never before spoken with the press. He speaks to WiG now, he says, “for the sole purpose of putting more pressure on the Madison Police Department.”

“While I do not think that the police are acting maliciously, they have been extraordinarily incompetent throughout this investigation,” says Gonnering.

It’s understandable the murder remains an open wound, shared among those closest to Zimmermann. “I’m not going to lie,” Jean Zimmermann, Brittany’s mother says. “It takes over.”

Dane County’s 911 center was thoroughly reorganized. But as for the murder investigation — no charges, no arrests.

“There are always things that are being looked at,” Madison Police Chief Michael Koval says.

A Capital City native, Koval came up through the ranks and was made chief in 2014. He offers generalities; no one within the department will comment on the specifics of an open investigation.

“We are still very vigorous in our approach and hopefully can find those individuals who are responsible,” Koval says. “We feel that overriding sense of mission to give this family and our community the peace of mind that .…”

The chief pauses. “This is the most despicable of homicides,” he says. “We feel a necessity to close it.”

Early in the investigation

In the first year after Zimmermann’s death, more than 700 people were investigated. Agencies involved included the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Department of Criminal Investigation, Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory, FBI, University of Wisconsin-Madison Police, Wisconsin State Capitol Police and the Dane County Sheriff’s Department. More than 140 MPD officers work the case, writing 2,900 pages of reports. All remain sealed by court order. As a result, mystery surrounds much of the story.

“We don’t even know what happened that day,” says Jean Zimmermann. “I don’t think people realize that. We have never been told anything about the day she died.”

“Why won’t they take a kick at the cat with the evidence they have? It just doesn’t make sense,” says one of Brittany’s aunts, Lisa Zimmermann Walcisak. She has a unique perspective — she serves as a legal secretary in Price County’s office of the district attorney. “They should be able to create a timeline of when he was there and when she was murdered.”

It’s time for a fresh look.

Murder timeline

WiG can now create a timeline of her murder from new interviews, available police and coroner records, UW-Madison archives and contemporary press accounts, especially those from student papers.

On the ground and intimately involved, UW’s Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald turned up a great deal of potential testimony, establishing background and taking us back in time.

In 2008, Zimmermann was 21 and a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She planned to get a doctorate in infectious disease — her dream was to find cures for the world’s worst illnesses.

She worked for three years at the university’s office of the registrar. At work, according to her boss, she discussed medical school, marriage and starting a family.

On Easter, she had announced her engagement to Gonnering.

Madison on that Wednesday in April got  an unexpected gift: Snow closed schools in northern Wisconsin just the day before. But on April 2, 2008, the city exceeded the forecast and hit 50 degrees — balmy for so early in the year, drawing many outdoors. But Zimmermann had an exam.

After her exam, her fiancé saw her from afar, at about 11:30 a.m. They spoke by cellphone. “I was on the balcony of Van Hise (Hall), Brittany just below on the sidewalk,” Gonnering recalls today.

Zimmermann was wearing a lime green wool coat, jeans and black Puma sports shoes. She carried a blue-and-navy backpack. She was walking to her home in the Bassett neighborhood, southeast of campus. The most direct sidewalk route is 1.1 miles. Walking time is 26 minutes, though a knowledgeable Madisonian can knock off some time with shortcuts. Zimmermann might have been seen between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on any or all of the following streets: Bedford, West Johnson, West Main, State and University Avenue.

Home was on West Doty Street, in the heart of the Bassett neighborhood. It’s not a bad neighborhood — Madison’s current mayor lived on Zimmermann’s block when he was young.

Still, “You see more and more homeless people hanging out there,” Kristy Ludwig said later. The UW-Madison junior lives a block from Zimmermann’s apartment. “It’s something that has become normal, but it’s not something you want to get used to.”

Zimmermann arrived outside her home at 517 W. Doty St. She and Gonnering lived on the first floor of the 1921 house in a 756-square-foot flat.

Across the street and on both sides of the house are apartment buildings, full of potential witnesses. The set of three front windows are just a few yards from the sidewalk.

Four minutes before noon, Zimmermann was just 24 minutes away from being attacked. If she was being followed, she apparently did not notice. She took out her phone.

“She tried to call me a little before 12 o’clock and I had missed the call,” says her mother.

Outside the house, Zimmermann saw a rabbit on the lawn. She paused to photograph it with her phone. “She was a typical girl, OK? Very simple,” her mom says.

At noon, John Lange, a maintenance worker at the nearby Mental Health Center of Dane County, saw something odd. He knew most of the homeless people in the area, but that day a “very intoxicated” stranger was “getting in people’s faces” for money.

Zimmermann continued through three doors, the first of which was about to be forced open. Her fiancé had repeatedly complained to the management company about locks and doors, verbally and in writing.

Next was the inside entrance to the apartment. Zimmermann could have left it unlocked because the management company was sending over a potential tenant around noon to sublet the flat.

But at some point she locked that door.

She continued through a third doorway, leading to the rearmost room — the bedroom. That is where her fiancé would find her body, “lying in the entrance between our bedroom and hallway,” Gonnering says.

Zimmermann began to work on her computer, filling out a grant application for next year.

A friend of UW-Madison senior Rachel Krueger lived on the odd side of the 500 block of West Doty Street, the same as Zimmermann. She later told Krueger someone rang her doorbell excessively at noon and she saw an “older white male with gray hair walking away.”

Zimmermann’s front door was kicked in. The inner ground floor door gave way next.

“Upon entering the hallway, our apartment door was ajar with damage to the door frame,” Gonnering recalls.

“We were told (by police) that the trouble began in the living room,” says Jean Zimmermann.

Mishandled 911 call

Brittany Zimmermann phoned 911 at 12:20 p.m. She would be dead within 10 minutes, according to the coroner. The recording of her last minutes has been released only to family.

“You can definitely hear her screaming. I’m not going to lie. And then someone else talking,” says Jean Zimmermann. “That’s literally all I know of the entire day.”

But the emergency center mishandled the call.

By the time Gonnering returned home, he told a student paper, “She was cold, her fingers were stiff.” He phoned 911 at 1:08 p.m. “Ambulance is needed,” he said, barely able to speak. In shock, he misinterpreted the injuries. “I just came home, the door was busted in and my girlfriend’s been shot.”

According to the Herald, “Police arrived within seven minutes to find Gonnering trembling and weeping, with Zimmermann lying on the ground next to him.”

It rapidly became an “all hands” law enforcement response. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, experts examined the scene and collected a pair of bloody slippers, computer paper with apparent blood drops, hair and 18 blood samples, “10 fingerprints,” nine partial footwear prints and 23 DNA swabs.

One of the swabs would lead to a suspect who has yet to be charged.

Crime Stoppers

Anyone with information in the 2008 death of Brittany Zimmermann is urged to contact Madison Area Crime Stoppers at 608-266-6014 or madisonareacrimestoppers.org.

Read Part 2: The suspect

PHOTOS: Courtesy, AP, courtesy, Jeff Miller/UW-Madison

 UW-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann. The crime scene at the house on West Doty Street. Brittany Zimmermann and her mom, Jean. A vigil takes place at the UW-Madison campus.

Dispatcher: ‘Gunshots closer, multiple people screaming’

Orlando police dispatchers heard repeated gunfire, screaming and moaning from patrons of the Pulse nightclub who called to report that gunman Omar Mateen was opening fire inside the club, according to written logs released on June 28.

The first call of “shots fired” came in at 2:02 a.m. and the caller reported “multiple people down.”

One caller said Mateen had gone upstairs where six people were hiding. Dispatchers heard up to 30 gunshots in the background at another point as callers screamed and moaned.

“My caller is no longer responding, just an open line with moaning,” one dispatcher said in the report.

Another dispatcher wrote, “Hearing gunshots closer, multiple people screaming.”

A caller described Mateen as wearing a gray shirt and brown pants.

Mateen opened fire at the club on June 12, leaving 49 patrons dead and 53 injured in the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history. In calls with the police after the shooting began, Mateen pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, declared himself to be an Islamic soldier and demanded that the United States stop bombing Syria and Iraq, the FBI said.

“Saying he pledges to the Islamic State,” a dispatcher wrote at 2:40 a.m.

The report recounted where patrons hid in the nightclub: in an office upstairs, in a closet, in a dressing room and behind a stage. Ten people were hiding in the handicap stall of a bathroom. One caller described patrons using their hands to stop the bleeding of shooting victims.

At several points, callers relayed misinformation to the dispatchers. One caller said there was a second gunman and another thought Mateen had a bomb.

Mateen “is saying he is a terrorist … and has several bombs strapped to him in the downstairs female restroom,” the dispatcher notes said.

According to the time-stamped calls, nine people were evacuated through the air conditioner window of a dressing room at 4:21 a.m. At 5:07 a.m., dispatchers heard an explosion as SWAT team members tried to knock down a bathroom wall to free 15 hostages. At 5:17 a.m., dispatchers heard: “Bad guy down.”

Emails, inspection reports and texts released by the Orlando Fire Department on June 28 suggested that one of the exits at the Pulse nightclub wasn’t operable weeks before the massacre, but a fire department spokeswoman and an attorney for the club both said that wasn’t true.

The last fire inspection at Pulse was conducted in late May when the inoperable exit door was discovered, according to an email exchange between Orlando Fire Marshall Tammy Hughes and Fire Chief Roderick Williams. A follow-up visit was planned but hadn’t been assigned so it wasn’t known if the problem was fixed, the emails said.

But Pulse attorney Gus Benitez said that none of the six exits at the gay nightclub was blocked during the inspection. The inspector only found that a light bulb in an exit sign needed to be replaced and a fire extinguisher needed to be hung on wall. Both items were corrected, Benitez said in a statement.

Fire department spokeswoman Ashley Papagni backed up Benitez’s contention. She said the exit door was deemed inoperable because of the light bulb problem in the exit sign.

Pulse had twice the number of exits needed to accommodate its maximum occupancy of 300 patrons, according to the emails and texts.

The emails and dispatcher notes were released on the same day that a legal tug-of-war broke out over which court should be the venue for determining whether 911 tapes from the Pulse nightclub shootings can be made public.

Nearly two dozen news media organizations — including The Associated Press, CNN and The New York Times — contend city officials are wrongly withholding recordings of 911 calls and communications between gunman Mateen and the Orlando Police Department. Mateen was killed by police after a standoff in the shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

City officials claim the recordings are exempt under Florida law and are part of an FBI investigation.

A hearing had been scheduled this week in a Florida courtroom in Orlando but it was abruptly canceled after the U.S. Department of Justice was added to the case and Justice officials asked for it to be transferred to federal court.

Attorneys for the news media organizations said they will fight to keep the case in state court.

Mid-size U.S. cities are largely unprepared for Paris-style terrorist attacks

For Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there are lessons to be learned from the terror that gripped Paris just over a week ago.

After the Islamic State attacks, Democratic Mayor Walter Maddox took note of the Parisian security staff that prevented a suicide bomber from entering the French national soccer stadium. His thoughts turned to Bryant-Denny Stadium — where more than 100,000 people gather for University of Alabama football games. He considered the impact a terrorist attack could have on his 95,000-person city.

But experts say that unlike Maddox, many chief executives and police departments in midsize U.S. cities may not realize that terrorism could put their people and infrastructure at just as much risk as high-profile targets like New York City and Washington, D.C.

“The larger cities understand and grasp this,” Maddox said. “I’m not sure that at the midlevel cities the awareness is that high.”

Terrorism can and does happen in those places. This year, two men suspected of communicating with overseas terrorists were killed when they attempted to attack a free-speech event in Texas. A gunman killed four people at a military recruiting center in Tennessee, though it was unclear if he had worked with known terrorist organizations.

In the days following the Paris attacks, New York City deployed the first 100 officers in the city’s new Critical Response Command. The 500-officer program will be dedicated to counter-terrorism in the city, which spent $170 million this year to bring 1,300 new police officers to its 34,500-officer force. 

Conversely, in Wichita, Kansas, where an airport worker was arrested after he tried to execute a suicide attack at the local airport in 2013, the 437-officer police force was struggling to stay fully staffed this summer. 

While it’s difficult to know just how prepared every state and municipality is for a potential terrorist attack, security specialists say the ability to prevent and react well depends on a communication system and local counter-rism efforts that are still underdeveloped, even 14 years after 9/11.

Chet Lunner, a security consultant and former senior official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the FBI has counter-terrorism investigations in every state, but most places probably lack the resources to prevent or respond to an attack.

“You might think that all 50 states are responding to that kind of warning, but I’m not sure that they are at the appropriate level,” Lunner said.

The Paris attacks on “soft” targets like the restaurant and the concert hall — places with minimal security — should signal to local governments in the U.S. that they, too, could be at risk.

Lunner and Michael Balboni, a security consultant and former New York State senator who wrote homeland security laws for his state, say even if smaller cities and towns aren’t at high risk for violence and are short on the financial resources that big cities have, they should still plan and practice for terrorist attacks.

“State and local personnel are literally the tip of the spear,” Lunner said. “They owe it to themselves as well as the communities they serve” to be as prepared as possible.

Communication is key

Despite repeated efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on collecting and sharing information nationwide about potential terrorist threats, questions remain about how much filters down to local officials, especially in smaller municipalities.

In 2003, DHS and the U.S. Department of Justice began creating fusion centers to encourage and ease the sharing of information between federal law-enforcement and counter–rism officials in states and major urban areas. But a 2012 U.S. Senate subcommittee report found the centers yielded little counter-terrorism intelligence.

In 2011, the White House released the first national strategy and plan to empower local governments to prevent domestic violent extremism and homegrown terrorism. The plan advocates enhancing federal engagement with local communities that may be breeding grounds or targets for violence, though it has been criticized for disproportionately focusing on and alienating Muslims.

Until there is centralized information-sharing between the national and local governments, it will be difficult to get localities invested in sustained anti-terrorism work, Balboni said.

Balboni, who also served as a New York State homeland security adviser, said the fusion centers need to morph into what he calls “command and control centers” that gather intelligence and work in places where a potential threat or terrorist activity surfaces.

Outside big cities

People who don’t live in big cities typically viewed as likely terrorist targets may not think about terrorism affecting their communities or about devoting the resources to countering the possibility they could be hit. But they ought to.

Less-populated locales are where terrorists may settle in to plan or practice attacks, Lunner said. It is up to local police to get to know people and seek out information about potential threats.

“In this country, if you dial 911, the CIA does not show up at the end of your driveway,” Lunner said.

In Minot, a North Dakota city of less than 50,000, dealing with terrorist threats became a reality in the wake of the Paris attacks as the names of six people stationed at the Minot Air Force Base appeared on an Islamic State hit list.

The biggest challenge in responding to such a threat, Police Chief Jason Olson said, is the limited amount of resources his department has to focus on gathering intelligence and analyzing data.

Minot is a good example of a place that most people would not consider at risk for terrorism. And all Olson and local officials can do is push for relevant and timely information from the federal government.

But, Lunner said, they are probably not as informed as their counterparts in places like New York City.

Although states were quick to spend billions of federal dollars funneled to them after 9/11, they couldn’t sustain salaries needed to run long-term local surveillance programs with that one-time infusion of money. Since then, local spending on anti-terrorism has been reduced, said Doug Farquhar, a program director with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The problem is that they knew this was one-time dollars,” Farquhar said. “You can buy a firetruck or build a building, but you can’t hire employees.”

Localities have also been unlikely to pay more attention to anti-terrorism because of the infrequency of attacks, he said.

Maddox said Tuscaloosa is unique in its willingness to dedicate money and resources to prepare for terrorism and disaster. He credits much of that willingness to training that he and his staff received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in 2009.

“It’s getting your team to believe that we need to prepare for a moment that may or may not ever come,” he said.

Disaster prep equals terror prep

For many states and municipalities, counter-terrorism has become just a part of general disaster preparation, Farquhar said.

Maddox, who has been credited with an exemplary response to a 2011 tornado that destroyed 12 percent of the city, said the same elements of responding to a natural disaster or a major violent crime — providing emergency medical care, shelter and food, and good law-enforcement — extend to counter-terrorism.

“Whether we have a natural disaster or an active shooter situation, my protocols are going to be nearly identical in how we approach that situation,” he said.

And in Minot, which has suffered a number of disasters in recent years — including a train derailment and subsequent ammonia spill, a chemical warehouse fire and historic flooding — Olson said responding to terrorism has become just a part of the disaster preparedness plan.

Stateline is a news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.


Next Act’s ‘Back of the Throat’ finds absurdity in fear

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Arab-American writer Khaled receives a visit from two government agents. Their friendly demeanor turns aggressively suspicious as the pair attempts to connect Khaled to the worst terrorist act ever to take place on U.S. soil.

Such is the stuff of disturbing absursity in the hands of Yussef El Guindi, an Arab-American playwright whose 2004 play Back of the Throat launches the 2015–16 season for Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre. 

Described by American Theatre Magazine as “the Patriot Act as dramatized by David Mamet and Franz Kafka,” El Guindi’s play ratchets the fear and paranoia following the attacks to an absurd level, in which even everyday objects littering Khaled’s messy apartment become part of his supposed involvement in the terrorist plot. The proceedings also offer a unique view of the event from the other side of the 9/11 equation, according to director Edward Morgan.

“It’s a mix of comedy and theatricality,” Morgan says of the Next Act production, a Milwaukee premiere. “It’s funny, but then it’s scary, too. Given what’s still going on in the world, it’s also incredibly topical.”

An absurdist approach in the face of such overwhelming tragedy and its oppressive government aftermath is not without theatrical precedent, Morgan explains. For example, during the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia, writer and dissident Václav Havel (later president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic) criticized the ruling powers via his absurdist plays, one of the only outlets available.

In Back of the Throat, whose protagonist is more American than Arab, the scenario charts a course of inquiry that becomes ridiculous to the point of humorous while never losing its deadly potential, Morgan says.

“The point of the humor is to show the absurdity of how paranoia distorts our pursuit for the truth,” Morgan says. “It distorts it so much that it is entertaining while driving home the point. But the balance in the play has to be maintained between what’s funny and what’s serious, and that’s our job.”

Even the play’s title embraces the absurdity of the events. Back of the Throat refers to the difficulty one of the agents has in pronouncing the “K” in Khaled’s name. It also stands, however briefly, as a metaphor for the agent’s inability to understand the protagonist’s nature or his thoughts.

“The great thing about the play is that it’s not at all like a political essay,” Morgan says. “It’s a close-up on one guy in his apartment and his interaction with agents who are both scary and buffoons. In the end it’s about the people, as all good plays are.”

The experiences of the play’s author are similar to those of its protagonist, if only in the social context in which both operate. 

Born in Egypt, El Guindi grew up in London, eventually pursuing a graduate degree in playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He later served as playwright-in-residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for seven years before settling down in Seattle, where he worked as a poet, actor and filmmaker before deciding to write plays full time.

The act of becoming a U.S. citizen in 1996 concentrated his focus on issues of Arab-American identity, El Guindi told Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater in 2010. Wrestling with such issues gave him a more focused approach and an enduring context for his plays, which include Language Rooms and Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. Those plays, too, trade on humor to support more serious social themes surrounding the Arab-American experience.

“I think my laughter stems from the fact that most of my writing revolves around matters of fitting in, identity, how one is perceived, how one perceives others,” El Guindi said. “The fact that I’m dealing with matters that are perceived to be fraught and political doesn’t take away from the fact that, essentially, my concerns are no different from a high school student wondering which table he should sit at during lunch.”

The social undercurrent carries through to Back of the Throat, which Morgan says gives the play both an accessibility and importance that should sit well with Milwaukee audiences.

“Intellectually, the message is an inside look at how fear distorts from the perspective of the person being feared.” Morgan adds. “You know how people laugh and are scared on a roller-coaster ride? The effect of the play is something like that.”

ON STAGE 

Next Act Theatre’s production of Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat runs Oct. 1–25 at the 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For more information and tickets, dial 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.

Next Act’s New Season

Back of the Throat kicks off Next Act Theatre’s 2015-16 season with a scintillating look at an Arab-American caught in the absurd context that followed the 9/11 attacks. Other productions this season follow their own unique paths in examining the human experience.

Next Act enters the holiday season with John Kishline’s unSilent Night, a Next Act world premiere about a Christmas Eve 1954 confrontation between a disk jockey and an intruder at a small Milwaukee radio station during which each discovers what it’s like to be alone. The holiday production runs Nov. 12 to Dec. 6.

A diverse, interactive kaleidoscope of personal testimony and social tension drive Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a powerful retelling of the riots and unrest that rocked Los Angeles after the police officers charged in the Rodney King beating were found not guilty. The play, which dramatizes dozens of author Anna Deavere Smith’s interviews with participants and witnesses, strikes at the heart of racism in America. It runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 21.

Tears and laughter are promised for the Milwaukee premiere of Motherhood Out Loud, a project conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein with contributions from 14 American playwrights. The play, which runs April 7 to May 1, offers some telling and insightful riffs on what it means to be a mother in ways that span and unite generations of mothers and their children.

— M.M.

Reaction to the Senate’s CIA torture report

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Dec. 9 released a report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

A 600-page summary from the 6,000-page report has been declassified after months of disputes between the committee and the CIA over redactions. The summary concludes that the CIA repeatedly tortured detainees, including using the simulated drowning technique called “waterboarding.” The report also concludes that the information gathered using torture produced no security benefits and accuses the CIA of repeatedly lying to Congress, the White House and the American public.

The reaction:

“These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.” — President Barack Obama.

“This nation should never again engage in these tactics … The CIA program was far more brutal than people were led to believe.” — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“This is a shocking report, and it is impossible to read it without feeling immense outrage that our government engaged in these terrible crimes. This report definitively drags into the light the horrific details of illegal torture, details that both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked hard to sweep under the rug. The government officials who authorized illegal activity need to be held accountable. The administration’s current position – doing absolutely nothing – is tantamount to issuing tacit pardons. Tacit pardons are worse than formal ones because they undermine the rule of law. The CIA’s wrongful acts violated basic human rights, served as a huge recruiting tool for our enemies, and alienated allies world-wide. Our response to the damning evidence in this report will define us as a nation.” — ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.

“This disturbing report clearly demonstrates the need for those who approved of and carried out this campaign of torture to be held accountable for their actions. It also shows that strong legal and policy measures need to be enacted in order to prevent such illegal actions being taken during any future security crisis.” — the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.

“A great nation must be prepared to acknowledge its errors. This report details an ugly chapter in American history during which our leaders and the intelligence community dishonored our nation’s proud traditions. Of course we must aggressively pursue international terrorists who would do us harm, but we must do so in a way that is consistent with the basic respect for human rights which makes us proud to be Americans.” — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

“This is a good start, but it is far from the whole picture. …We are still a long way from acknowledging the horrors of the CIA’s torture program, and achieving real accountability.” — Clare Algar, executive director at international human rights NGO Reprieve.

“When I was 12 years old, I was bundled onto a dark plane, separated from my parents, and told to keep my two younger brothers and younger sister quiet and calm. They were 11, nine and six years old. All we could hear was our mother crying, saying that we were being taken back to Libya to be executed by Colonel Gaddafi. When we landed, I was told to go and say goodbye to my father, who was bound up and had a needle in his arm. I fainted, because I was sure we were going to be killed. We now have the actual faxes and flight plans that prove that the CIA arranged the whole thing. That is what the rendition program involved, however hard the politicians try to black out the truth from their report.” — Khadija al Saadi, a victim of a CIA-MI6 rendition to Libya in 2004 when she was 12.


Nobel Peace Prize winners urge U.S. to fully disclose use of torture

Twelve Nobel Peace Prize winners this week sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling on the United States to provide full disclosure of the authorization, extent and use of torture and rendition in the years following 9/11.

The letter, signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jose Ramos-Horta, said the president’s recent admission that the United States engaged in torture is a first step at reckoning but that a great deal more needs to be done, including releasing the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of torture.

The Nobel laureates also called on the United States to verify that “black sites” for the use of torture and interrogation abroad have been closed, shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison and adhere to the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention against Torture, according to a release from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero, “These men and women of courage and conscience rightly emphasize the historic crossroads our nation faces when the Senate’s landmark torture report is released. The eyes of the world are on President Obama to account for and forever ban the shameful use of torture, cruelty, and indefinite detention. Ordering an end to the CIA’s self-serving fight over redactions in the Senate report would be a good place to start. The laureates’ words are a powerful reminder that when we stray from our values and respect for human rights, the whole world feels the negative effects.”

Signatories on the letter include Desmond Tutu, José Ramos-Horta, Mohamed ElBaradei, Muhammad Yunus, Jody Williams, Oscar Arias Sanches, Frederik Willem de Klerk, Betty Williams, Bishop C. X. Belo, John Hume and Adolfo Peres Esquivel.

The letter, in part, reads, “We have reason to feel strongly about torture. Many of us among the Nobel Peace Prize laureates have seen firsthand the effects of the use of torture in our own countries. Some are torture survivors ourselves. Many have also been involved in the process of recovery, of helping to walk our countries and our regions out of the shadows of their own periods of conflict and abuse.

“It is with this experience that we stand firmly with those Americans who are asking the US to bring its use of torture into the light of day, and for the United States to take the necessary steps to emerge from this dark period of its history, never to return.

“In recent decades, by accepting the flagrant use of torture and other violations of international law in the name of combating terrorism, American leaders have eroded the very freedoms and rights that generations of their young gave their lives to defend. They have again set an example that will be followed by others; only now, it is one that will be used to justify the use of torture by regimes around the world, including against American soldiers in foreign lands. In losing their way, they have made us all vulnerable.”



Sydney claims victory in world cup of gay rugby

The world cup of gay rugby, the Bingham Cup, concluded Aug. 31 with the hosting team, the Sydney Convicts, claiming its second championship in a row, beating the Brisbane Hustlers 31-0.

The biannual competition took place over three days in Sydney, with 24 teams from around the world, including the LA Rebellion, NYC’s Gotham Knights and the San Francisco Fog, each playing six games over three days. London’s Kings Cross Steelers, the world’s first gay rugby team, was favored to win, but lost to Brisbane in the semifinal match.

The cup is named for Mark Bingham, a gay rugby enthusiast who died a hero on Sept. 11, 2001. Bingham was one of the hostages who helped bring down Flight 93 in Pennsylvania.

The gritty sport of rugby is a display of hardcore masculinity that defies gay stereotypes.

The tournament’s timing was well suited for its first appearance in the Southern Hemisphere since it began in 2002. The Australian Rugby Union announced an inclusion policy to tackle homophobia in sports the week before the Bingham Cup began.

As a way of showing their support, players and coaches from Australia’s national team, the Wallabies, and Sydney’s state team, the NSW Waratahs led 400 players in a two-hour training session held before the competitions.

“We wanted to give them all drills and skills they can take away with them and practice in the future as they go forward with their rugby careers,” said Aussie player Andrew Blades. “We want everyone to feel like they’ve got a place in rugby, you don’t want anyone to feel like they’re excluded. I hope that over time players in this tournament will feel like that they can play on any team.”

Wisconsin golf course stirs outrage with 9/11 promotion

A Verona golf course drew outrage yesterday after placing an ad in the Wisconsin State Journal announcing a Sept. 11 golf sale.

The ad for Tumbledown Trails Golf Course in Verona offered “9 holes with cart for only $9.11 per person or 18 holes with car for only $19.11!”

The golf course was so overwhelmed with ofended callers and Facebook posts that its operators considered closing the course down for a day. Some calls included death threats, according to club owner and general manager Marc Watts. He  told The Associated Press that he intended to show no disrespect with the promotion.

A sheriff’s deputy has been stationed at the club, he added.

“Please stay tuned to see if we will be open on Wed 9/11,” announced a posting on the company’s Facebook page today. “We are now worried about what people will do/say to our staff & do not want anything to happen or get out of control.”

People posting comments on the course’s website felt the promotion was a disrespectful way to try making money off a national tragedy.

As one commenter wrote, “9/11 is a painful, frightening memory for those of us who were living and growing up in the Northeast. For those who were there and who lost parents, relatives and friends, it is a nightmare they must face at this time every year for the rest of their lives. To exploit these horrors for profit is sickening.”

Tumbledown has tried to defuse the situation by promising to honor all tee times already booked under the promotion and then charging additional golfers the normal rate and donating the difference to the 9/11 Memorial.”

“We hope that everyone will now see this as a positive as we really meant it to be,” the course posted on its Facebook page.

The ruckus created by the ad has drawn attention from national media, including a story in New York’s Daily News.

Tomorrow  is the 12th anniversary of the day that terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center, killing 2,753 people and injuring thousands more, including medical problems caused from exposure to toxic pollution from the crash site. The WTC was totally destroyed. 

Illinois priest calls 911 to remove handcuffs and gag he was ‘playing with’

A Springfield, Ill., priest is on administrative leave after calling 911 to report that he was unable to remove a pair of handcuffs he’d been “playing with.”

Father Tom Donovan placed a 911 call on Nov. 28 from the rectory of St. Aloysius Parish asking for help getting out of the cuffs “before this becomes a medical emergency.”

His voice on the 911 tape released yesterday by police sounds garbled or muffled. Police discovered Fr. Donovan was also wearing a gag when they arrived.  

Donovan told police he was alone in the rectory when he was gagged and cuffed.

Kathie Sass, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Springfield, would not disclose Donovan’s whereabouts to the  Illinois Times or say whether he is staying at a church-affiliated location.

“There’s a matter of privacy there,” she said.

“He came to the bishop before anyone was aware of the incident,” Sass said. “He came to the bishop and asked for help and was granted leave.”