(First posted September 11, 2012)
Five days before Islamic terrorists commandeered American airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field*, it was the same kind of beautiful, sunny day in Washington, DC that it was on that horrible day. On that sunny September 6, 2001, former U.S. Senator John Danforth became the first-ever U.S. Sudan Special Envoy, with the mandate of trying to bring peace to that war-torn region.
For decades, the Islamist government of Sudan had been attempting forcibly to Islamize and Arabize all of Sudan, and waging genocidal jihad against those African Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional religions from the South, the Nuba Mountains, and elsewhere that resisted. Sudan’s so-called civil war had already resulted in the death of over 2.5 million people, mostly civilians, and the displacement of over 5 million.
Danforth was sworn in by President George W. Bush in a White House Rose Garden ceremony to which dozens of people from South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains and their American activist friends, including me, were invited. Excitement was palpable that day. Since taking office, President Bush had made Sudan a priority. He spoke out against what he called one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, acknowledged the complicity of the Sudanese government, attempted to circumvent their orchestrated starvation of their own people by changing USAID’s methods of food distribution, and agreed to appoint a special envoy that would be his personal representative on U.S. Sudan policy.
We were full of hope that the appointment of Jack Danforth could eventually lead to a peace agreement that would bring about an end to the bombing, starvation, slavery, and other methods of jihad being used by the Government of Sudan against its own citizens. There were no illusions that this would be easy or quick in coming. The real work was just beginning, as we tried to see a piece of legislation, the Sudan Peace Act, passed in Congress. But although everyone was united that day in the appointment of the Sudan Special Envoy, the State Department was opposed to the stringent measures in the legislation. They particularly disliked an amendment sponsored by U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) that had already been passed by the House of Representatives, to invoke capital market sanctions against companies doing business with the Government of Sudan.
And so, in the days following the swearing in, as Special Envoy Danforth reviewed his portfolio and familiarized himself with the situation in Sudan, we worked in a coalition to strengthen U.S. Sudan policy and pass the Sudan Peace Act with the sanctions intact. As Congressman Bachus himself told the late heroic journalist A. M. Rosenthal, “Expanding U.S. sanctions in the area of capital markets access specifically targets what is the most significant revenue the Sudanese government has to prosecute the war. Obviously, the United States must send a new message and we must make that message stick. Stop the killing, stop the murder and torture, end the terror, or we end the investment. Can’t have it both ways. It is immoral to finance a war machine you know is wrong. America has to walk the walk.”
In addition to opposing the immoral financing of a regime committing terrorism against its own people, we were convinced (I remain so) that the Sudanese regime was complicit in global terrorism and jihad. While some members of Congress also believed this and said so at House hearings, successive Administrations (Clinton, Bush, Obama) continued to prefer the fantasy that the Sudan regime was a good faith partner. They downplayed intelligence received from sources on the ground in Sudan pointing to the regime’s connections to terrorists around the world.
So our Sudan coalition planned to declare the need for the House version of the Sudan Peace Act in order to stop genocide in Sudan and to help stop global Islamic terrorism at a press conference. The event was to be in the Rayburn House Office Building at 9:00 A.M. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
I was in a cab, almost at the Rayburn Building, when I heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. In those days, before we could conceive of the evil of which the Islamist agenda was capable, even I, familiar as I was with the atrocities taking place in South Sudan and with persecution of Christians elsewhere in the Islamic world, assumed it was some horrible accident.
In the hearing room, though, things became clear. All the other speakers and Sudan coalition members’ eyes were riveted on the television screen when I got there. News came that a second plane had crashed in New York.
We, who reported on Antonovs dropping bombs on starving civilians waiting for food distribution, and women and children abducted and branded like cattle, had seen this level of monstrousness in Sudan, but never before in our own country.
Not long after, we were ushered out of the room by Capitol Hill police. The congressional offices were all being evacuated and closed. No one knew what was happening.
We surely couldn’t conceive that two more planes full of our fellow citizens would be used against us as weapons by the terrorists, or that the Americans on one of those planes would precede our valiant military troops in doing battle against Islamic jihad. In the midst of shock, my only continual thought was that now they would “get it.” Now they would understand what was happening in Sudan.
I’m not sure I even knew what I meant by them “getting” it. I had not yet begun to articulate the problem that I saw with U.S. Sudan policy — that what was taking place was being treated as a humanitarian issue and the root cause was never addressed.
It was the same root cause that we saw in the suffocating smoke, burned flesh and incinerated body parts, collapsed towers, and obscene yawning chasms that indicated that we had crossed a line in history from which we could never return. I think I hoped that the policymakers would now somehow understand that to deal with Sudan’s genocide as a humanitarian crisis was as absurd as to deal with 9/11 as a humanitarian crisis.
Even before we learned the magnitude of 9/11, we understood that this was a deliberate attack on us for who we were and what we represented. No less was this true in Sudan where the regime was attempting to eradicate all those who resisted the imposition of a pure Arabist Islamist identity. But U.S. Sudan policy did not reflect that reality.
It still doesn’t. Every success in U.S. Sudan policy — the passage of the Sudan Peace Act, which led to the North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and finally to an independent nation of South Sudan — has happened in spite of the absurdity of negotiating in good faith with a regime that operates through denials and deception. Failures — to stop the genocide in Darfur, to fully implement the CPA, to protect the people of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile and avert starvation — have occurred because the regime has never been held accountable for violating and dishonoring decades of agreements.
Leaving D.C. that morning as people flooded out of the city and then remained for hours without moving on every street and highway, I wished we could go back to a time when we were naïve. I wished we had not been rudely awakened to the kind of world that the people of South Sudan knew as reality. I understood the irrevocable nature of what had taken place, and even before U.S. troops set off for battle in Afghanistan and Iraq, I knew that nothing would ever be the same.
*We know that the terrorists didn’t intend to crash United Airlines Flight 93 into the field. It was the brave men and women on board who did that, fighting back, preventing the jihadists from crashing in Washington, DC, and bringing the plane down in Pennsylvania instead.