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banner Friday, 14 December, 2001, 15:24 GMT
Letter from America Forum
Black American writer Bonnie Greer returned to her native Chicago and to New York, giving voice to ordinary Americans who are baffled by the 11 September terrorist attacks.

To watch full coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Transcript

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to Correspondent Online, my name is Anita McNaught. With me today is writer Bonnie Greer, who reported on Correspondent's 'Letter from America' last night. Born in Chicago Bonnie has lived in England for the last 15 years but in the film she went back to her native city to ask family and friends how their lives have changed since September 11th.

Bonnie for those who didn't see the programme and those of us indeed who did very much, tell us a little bit about what you found when you went back to Chicago.

Bonnie Greer:
Well the film was a personal trip for one thing, it wasn't a sort of reportage where I had to go and sort of get a mine of opinions and so forth. So it was very personal. I found an America very confused, much more frightened than is reported overseas. Much more inwardly looking than I'd expected them to be. When I was here I was saying that Americans were ready to look outside and see what was going on but I found America actually too, I guess, self-involved to want to do that and how to do that. So that was the most shocking thing. I also found a racial divide in the sense that the black people - I mean most people I spoke to were my family, black people, who didn't approve of what happened but they certainly understood how it could have happened which is not the face that's played across to the world at all. And again one stressed no one was condoning it but they could understand it.

Newshost:
In your piece you talked to the people on the street, as it were, rather than looking for experts, commentators, was that a deliberate policy on your part for this film?

Bonnie Greer:
Yeah I'm writer primarily, I'm not a reporter, I wouldn't even know how to do anything like that and I think Correspondent really wanted me to do something very, very personal. And so that's what I did, I just talked to the people I knew, I had no idea what they were going to say but I talked to people I knew, I talked to people who I've met through other people I knew. So it's very personal and quite small in that sense. And I think that the people who may have said that it didn't show America, well it does show America, America's a mosaic, it isn't this one thing and this is a corner of America and it's very important to show that corner of America.

Newshost:
Well we had about 250 e-mails in response to your piece so let's work through some of them and see what you respond. In your film you showed American students, repeatedly complaining that they didn't feel well informed by the American media and they don't know where to go to get information, information they feel they can rely on. An e-mail correspondent called James asks: "How far do you think the American media is to blame for what is seen by many as American arrogance?"

Bonnie Greer:
Well I think that first of all America's a very media saturated country, we are a country who get everything that we understand from the media, for instance, ABC News has a thing called World News Tonight and it's usually about Omaha, Nebraska or Texas. So Americans know everything through the media. I'm not in the media so I can't answer that particularly but I can say that the media that I looked at, I looked at American media, in London, when it was happening and I've found it to be very lightweight, I've found it to be more entertainment led than say the BBC or any of the so-called foreign media. The news wasn't as hard, granted that newscasters were also going through the same emotional shake-up that all of us was going through, but I was just surprised at how ungrounded it was. I think that American news has been enthralled in entertainment values at least since the 15 years that I've been overseas and lived abroad. It seems to have gotten a lot more story-led, in the sense it has to be personal interest. A lot of the news that I saw out of that, say, around the event itself was centred a lot on people's personal sort of involvement with it as opposed to any sort of, what we might call, hard news. So I think in that way Americans are fed the news through the story telling, which is not a bad way to do it but that can't be the only way that it's done. And again I don't know a lot about the media but it seems to me that a lot of the problem might be that a lot of American media's owned by entertainment corporations so that might be partly what it's about really.

Newshost: And of course the argument would be that people get the news they want, particularly in a market sensitive country like America.

Bonnie Greer:
Yes, I can - again - I think that that is true but I think, at the same time, that there's something Americans who may - they may want that as well that sort of news.

Newshost:
You've touched on this, I mean Leo Trubetskoi who e-mailed us from the UK said he was dismayed at how little Americans seemed to know or care about what happens outside US borders and he asks you whether you think most Europeans or Britons actually know more about the world than Americans do.

Bonnie Greer:
Well I've thought a lot about this question. The thing that's important to remember about America is that America was set up - America was invented, it was the first invented country and partly was invented to be a refuge, there are many Americans, especially European Americans, who escaped whatever bad things were happening to them to come to America. You were encouraged to close the door once you come to America. I was in Italy and met an Italian American by the name of Sal, I mean was the face of a Roman coin, and the first time he'd ever been to Italy and I started talking to him about different things about Italian culture, this man was a pilot, he had no idea about the Italian Renaissance, he looked at me and he was not kidding me, he said: "The Italians did all that?" And I didn't know whether to laugh or cry or what. And it has to do with the fact that again that so many Americans in America - people have escaped oppression, so to actually get the whole story of outside America is very painful for the people. So yes most people know more about the world than Americans do absolutely.

Newshost:
Now Jo Broek, if I'm pronouncing that correctly, from Holland asks an interesting question, partly based on the assumption that the US media doesn't have enough in depth analysis of this issue: "Where have all the dissidents in America gone?" And that may well be a question about censorship.

Bonnie Greer:
Well I talked to one, we know that the Patriot Act has been signed which basically rescinds the first five amendments of the Constitution. People are very frightened right now to actually speak out. When I was there and that again - this film was a snapshot between - America between October 21st and November 7th 19 - 2001 - so I don't know what it's like now but then people were afraid to speak, they were afraid to say what they felt, they were afraid to go online, they were afraid of telephone calls, people were being encouraged on the news, this is not a joke, if you hear someone in a bar talking about - Oh I know this and that about anthrax - you were encouraged to call the FBI, this was then, and that shows the level of fear that people have. Dissidents have to be very careful because people are being taken off the streets and they're being - there's secret trials going on right now, everybody knows it. There were, I think, 1500 people picked up while I was in the United States, there may be more now. So actually to speak against American foreign policy or even to question it is a risk right now for people, it's an enormous thing for me to even contemplate that this is going on in the United States. And in fact I know that the left and the right have protested or made some kind of statement about what's going on but the people in the middle are so frightened they just don't realise how much has been rescinded with this Patriot Act, that's where they've gone.

Newshost:
This is a marked contradiction.

Bonnie Greer:
Absolutely to every - and everything the country was founded to do. I mean enormous, enormous, this is four and a half years we're going to be under this. I mean I could be stopped from returning to the country I was born in under the Patriot Act. So guess what the dissidents are going through. It's terrible, I feel for them.

Newshost:
Turning to those e-mailers who were pleased that the film showed at least, if not dissidents, some Americans who are questioning US policy. Andrew McMillan e-mailing us from the UK: "Do you think their voice is loud enough to be heard by the Bush administration and of course the American media?" And by implication, I suppose, although Andrew didn't say this, will they care to listen, will they need and want to listen?

Bonnie Greer:
Well that's two questions. First of all there were always anti-war demonstrations in America around this war against terrorism right from the beginning. There were always Jewish groups who were marching against what was going on in Israel and Palestine right from the beginning. There were always movements who came out against what had happened on September 11th right from the beginning. You don't see those people a lot because - I don't know - they don't fit the game plan that's going on. I met some of those people, I met a group called 'Not In My Name' which is a Jewish American group who everyday on Friday before - I mean the day before the Sabbath - they're out on North Michigan Avenue at noon standing there with placards saying: 'We are Jews and whatever's going on over there don't do it in our name.' But are they ever broadcast? No. Is it ever broadcast - the dissidents who are against what's going on? No. It doesn't suit the agenda. I think - I mean I don't know what President Bush is about but I do know that there are people in the administration who are not interested, it's as simple as that.

Newshost:
Douglas Brant e-mailing us from Northern Ireland commented that since the US is a country of so many different cultures and different outlooks, contrast, for example, from the deep South with the metropolitan East, and you have, of course, lived in New York, how can this be expected - how could you be expected to consolidate a set of views and values that would reflect all America?

Bonnie Greer:
It's impossible - and it's impossible and that's sort of the point of the film. I think one of the reasons that are face is so ugly abroad is that we do have one face that's rejected, i.e. the face that was shown in the film before of those young servicemen in the desert in Egypt, the ugly American that goes around and refuses to speak any language or to adapt to a culture - that's the face that's rejected, that is not all that America's about, America is a rich, complex, multifaceted country and this was one of the stories, there are many, many stories there. So this story - and I said at the beginning of the film - this is my America and I don't think people - a lot of people didn't hear that but that is what I said, I didn't say this is America because there's no such thing.

Newshost:
And touching on that too, Melanie Woolfenden who is an American living in the UK commented that perhaps you should have interviewed some people who may feel that as a melting pot, and you touched on that, as a haven for people, the US hasn't done so badly compared to many other countries in the world and she said that US foreign policy hasn't been wholly bad, they have made many positive contributions to try to influence the peace process in the Middle East, for example, and contributed developments in many parts of the world, America is a major aid donor as we know. So do you think this is a case of damned if we do, damned if we don't?

Bonnie Greer:
Well I agree with her. If this was a - I'd say reporter's film, we would have had to be fair, in other words I would have had to go out and speak to people but this was a personal essay and I agree with her very much. I think we need more films, I think we need a film from her point of view, we need a film from the people who support Bush's point of view, people need to see the United States, all of it, and until that happens we are going to be in the kind of trouble we are now.

Newshost:
We had another American e-mailer, Sean Morrisroe, who said that a poll in the Washington Post showed 91% supportive of the war in Afghanistan and he congratulated you on finding the 9% who disapprove.

Bonnie Greer:
Well I didn't try to do that but I managed to do it, it's great.

Newshost:
Do you think there's a reason why the black, the African American people in particular, may feel so ambivalent to the kind of extreme and arguably necessary parochialism and flag waving that is happening in America?

Bonnie Greer:
Well many Americans, the majority of Americans, who are white Americans and out of that majority there is a percentage of people who actually have a very sort of na´ve one sided view about the United States' role in the world. They are not subjected to - or were not subjected to for instance to racial segregation which for many African Americans not only is in their living memory it certainly is a memory in all of us who are descended from those people who suffered under it. So we have a much more complex view of our country than say if you hadn't suffered under that, that's for instance, I think native Americans would say that, women would say that. So I think that that's the answer to that basically, that African Americans as a whole would sort of stand back and look at it much more objectively because we know another face. And there are those African Americans who - I've met African Americans who said - Bomb the hell out of them. So it's all there as well too.

Newshost:
Well then - and we have a correspondent writing to us saying - Laura Hewett, student of anti-Americanisation, asks whether you think the events of September 11th will lead to an increasing number of Americans dealing with that confusion, that incredulity, that you showed in your programme by becoming more aware of affairs outside the United States or will they, instead, contribute to a wider anger against the Muslim world, the defensive stance?

Bonnie Greer:
Before I went over I thought that we Americans, Americans, would be more open. When I got there I realised this maybe just a phase but I don't think so - I think Americans are going to become much more isolated as soon as this is over, they're going to literally pull the lid over the country. I mean people are talking about sealing the borders, which is absurd - all sorts of things. And I thought before I went over this was some sort of aberration, some sort of shock, reaction to what happened but I think this is endemic in the American character - we are essentially isolationists. Most of the world doesn't realise that Americans have to be dragged kicking and screaming in engaging outside the United States. We had a doctrine in about 1830 called the Monroe Doctrine, the idea of manifest destiny, we take care of our hemisphere, we're very concerned what happens in Latin and South America, what happens in the Caribbean, beyond that we couldn't care less. This whole thing about - I mean I was at a speech that Clinton gave on Friday and the former president said, bragged, that this war that we're engaged in, America, had cost us a billion dollars a month, now that's cheap, he said, by the standards of what we're doing. So what he's really saying is we are doing this with the minimum of resources, we're exploding bombs, we're using as little as possible because we're going to get out and once we get out believe me the door will be closed. America will venture forth only nakedly to avenge its own interests, from now on people have had it. Now this is going to be in my generation, may be the unborn will be different. But I think this is natural to us, I think we've come out of the closet now, I think people are really going to say - I wouldn't be surprised if people said - Pull the industries out, close the industries, get out - that sentiment is there, it's insane but that's the way people feel right now.

Newshost:
The young people in your piece Bonnie who were affronted, many of them, that they had been taught so little about what clearly mattered.

Bonnie Greer:
I think those kids are young people and they are shocked because something happened that they were told could not happen. They're young, may be they'll come out of the United States and look around, may be they won't. But they're very busy right now, those kids are really busy trying to get ahead, they owe tons of money for their studies, they're trying to get jobs, who've got a recession facing them. I asked a lot of them, even the 11-year-olds I talked to, I said are you angry, are you angry that my generation and people older than me let you down, you people are now facing a war - a war - a biggy and they are sad because it upsets their - the world view that they were painted which is a world that's tranquil, where American interests are going to be looked after, where we can go do what we want to - it's not going to happen anymore. I don't think young people - unless they make an effort, and a lot of them are, that unless they make a effort they're going to stay there, they're not going to come out, there's no reason for them to come out, they're going to be sealed in, this country is going to close down even more.

Newshost:
Well here's a point, taking that on into a wider sense, from an anonymous e-mailer we had, who said: "What do you think of the comparison that could be made between the USA and Rome?" The implication being are we looking at a decline and fall.

Bonnie Greer:
Right, well, Rome declined basically from what was going on inside - decadence inside, barbarians from without, so-called barbarians. The United States may be on a decline but if it is then the rest of the world's in a lot of trouble because the United States is going to go down fighting, it's not just going to fade away like Rome did. And that in a way, and I hate to say this, the United States is in such pain right now and so frightened and so angry, so full of vengeance that it is the most dangerous country on earth at this moment and I think we have to proceed very cautiously as Americans abroad and also Americans inside need to be very, very careful with it because American public opinion right now is very, very upset, extremely upset. And anything could happen, anything could happen.

Newshost:
But equally now America will never allow itself to become guests to problems in the rest of the world that might affect its own interests, I point this out because - the isolationism perhaps but they'll never allow, one would imagine, the intelligence to decline to the degree that they don't get the warnings they need.

Bonnie Greer:
Well - but it's different - it's a different situation in being in a situation where you are on alert all the time as opposed to being humanitarian.

Newshost:
The reason I ask is because we have an e-mailer, Donald Callister from Sheffield, who said that given that you could argue that the underlying cause of the conflict is that the existing economic order relies on the enslavement of a large proportion of the world population from both within and outside America, he asked how far you agreed with that, then by implication I'm asking you will something about the political engagement with the rest of the world and the way the rest of the world is used and deployed by the United States have to change? But first of all was the seed sown by the American's economic machines?

Bonnie Greer:
Partly, partly it is and partly the collusion with Britain, by Britain, France, every place else with it. America's a very productive country, it's a very successful country, it's a very prosperous country. It always angers me when I'm abroad where people can put down the United States just walk around in Nike, in American clothes, drink American coffee, drive American cars and want to go to America but they make fun of America which is - that's a schizophrenia. So in a sense I think that the Muslim world is saying, I don't agree with them 100%, but the Muslim world is another point of view, it's not my point of view but it is a point of view and just as the American point of view can't be bombed out of existence, the Muslims seen from the Muslim point of view cannot be bombed out of existence. America should have to learn how to coexist with that but it won't do that, it won't do that, it's not used to doing it and with the President that we've got now it won't do that.

Newshost:
So the question then that was asked in a couple of different ways by Alan Howes from the United Arab Emirates and by Laura Hewett in the UK, do you think that the events of September 11th will change American attitudes to the outside world so that they take a more active role in self-examination and in sorting out the problems in the rest of the world?

Bonnie Greer:
No, I mean I was at dinner parties with people in the States, we didn't get this on film, but people in the States have said - Well what if your allies pull out? - and they looked at me actually straight faced and they said - So what! I said - Well what do we do? - We go it alone, what's the big deal, what's the problem? That is the way people feel, that's the way America's being presented as the leader of the free world that we have to take on this so-called fight against terrorism, we'll do that, that's how people feel. So there's no sense in thinking of a nation sitting around in self-examination, that is not in the American character, that is not in the character. There are Americans who are doing that but it's not part of the template of the country, people don't do that. I have a brother-in-law, peace loving guy, lovely guy, call me up and said - I found out that his friends are dealing AK47s, they're getting all these submachine guns, they're taking training on stun guns as all the MI5 and CIA use - so I asked him - Well why are they doing that? - Oh we don't know who lives next door. So that's the deal, that's where people are right now. I mean forget gun control, capital punishment, rescind the capital punishment - all that's out the window because this thing happened and people - it's the worst nightmare, it's the worst nightmare realised for Americans. Somebody came in and bombed us and that - nothing else could have been worse than that, nothing, nothing.

Newshost:
So the problems, the anxiety, then you're saying will become internalised and a point made by Ian Mercer of the UK: "To what extent has the role of Muslim extremists on September 11th affected racial tensions within America?" And he talks about say white/Hispanic or American Asians, but your nephew in the programme said, you know, this woman says - Watch out for brown people - and to a greater or lesser degree everyone in the States is brown. The question will become who is my enemy - is that the sort of dynamics we may see?

Bonnie Greer:
Well you know you've got people - you've got people of Indian descent who are Sikhs who are driving New York taxi cabs with signs in the window saying - No, I'm a Sikh. And then when someone says - Well what's a Sikh? They have to explain what a Sikh is or if someone's saying - I'm a Hindu don't touch me - or - I'm a Muslim. But the majority of Arab Americans in the United States four-fifths of them are Christians but the fact that they've got to stand up and say that is really what it's about. For African Americans it's a very ironic time for us, it's very strange, because usually we get the looks, now what's happening is that anybody who's brown, who looks Asian, of Asian descent they're the ones getting the looks. I mean it's an insane situation where - I've got friends who said an Asian guy, a Muslim American, got on the plane and every American down the plane - and the people all turned around and said - We're not flying, this guy get off. So the guy was saying - But I have a right to fly - and the pilot says - Yeah you do but you've got to get off. He says - Well I'm going to sue you - and the guy says - Well sue us but you've got to get off. And you know you stand there humiliated and you wonder when this is going to end, why do people have to justify themselves, explain themselves, because of the colour of their skin? But that's where it is. It's intelligent people saying - Oh this guy, I know he's Egyptian and I know I know him and I know he's cool but I was really nervous when he came in the room. Nobody's sitting back because it's not in our character to sit back and say - Why are you saying something like that? It's taken as read - Oh I understand why, Oh wow I understand why you felt like that, I've felt like .... that's what's happening right now, it's crazy.

Newshost:
It's building new bridges too. A story you told in your article in the Observer yesterday that didn't appear in the piece was what happened with your hairdresser, Sadwar, after September 11th.

Bonnie Greer:
Yes, actually it happened Sadwar's salon is owned by a gentleman named Mohammed and most of the clientele are African American, well when the twin towers were hit about 100 women showed up at his salon to make sure that nobody came to hit him ...

Newshost:
He's African American?

Bonnie Greet:
These African American women to make sure that nobody came in to hurt him. He went through - I mean he was in total shock and he had to go - he had to leave - but they sat in the salon to make sure no one came by. I mean there's this neighbourhood that we have a friend who lives in where the call to prayer was issued on every, I guess, Friday well they had to stop that because people were burning Mosques in Chicago, they were chasing women down the street. I know one woman in New York who lived in TriBeCa where the incident happened, the minute it happened she ran uptown and just every Muslim woman she saw with the headscarf on she said - Just take it off, take it off, take it off, take it off - it was that bad, it's still bad for a lot of people in rural areas, it's still bad for people in the cities. That's something in us that's coming up, it is not a template, it is something that is deep inside Americans, we embrace foreigners but you've got to become an America, if you don't become an American then you're suspect. An American is some - I don't even know what an American is anymore, I never felt more like a foreigner than when I did this time. But you've got to embrace whatever this thing called America is, you can be a hyphenate American if you want but if you're not waving that flag 100% down the line then you're suspect. I don't know how they're dealing with that guy they found in the fort in Afghanistan, John Walker, the American, the California boy, I have no idea how Americans are getting their head around that one.

Newshost:
Well we're probably and regretfully out of our time for this today but Bonnie thank you very much indeed. We appreciate you coming in and thank you, all of you, for your e-mails and to everyone who sent in a question, I'm sorry we didn't get to deal with them all but we did our best. We're at the end of this series of Correspondent but we return to BBC 2 on January 20th with a report from the Afghan refugee camps on the border with Iran. In the meantime you can log on to our website at www.bbc.co.uk/correspondent. Until then from me and Bonnie Greer goodbye.


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