Shades of Gray
August 4, 2005
Observing London after the July 7 subway and bus bombings, Adam Gropnik of The New Yorker noted that the city was having the kinds of discussions about terrorism that the United States has failed to have since Sept. 11.Questions about whether the terrorists aren’t simply suicidal maniacs, but cunning militants with a strategy and goals, or questions about whether they’re both smart and suicidal don’t receive much attention when the president declares that the world is either with us or against us.Sue Gray is trying to bring such discourse into the Roaring Fork Valley. And she is causing controversy. But whether this is due to her staunchly anti-war and pro-Palestinian stances or the tone in which she describes her views is open to interpretation.The Carbondale grandmother has been a sporadic presence in letters to the valley’s papers for nearly five years. Before and during the Iraq war, Gray, 48, said she wrote two letters a month for two years. As of late, however, the topic between her and her critics has been the intractable politics of Israel and Palestine.
So what is it that drives Gray to respond to her critics so often, and they to her?”We honestly sit around and try to figure out what motivates her, besides real hate and venom,” said Jerry Epstein, a part-time Aspen resident and one of Gray’s occasional detractors. “In one of her letters, she said Israel’s crimes are worse than Iraq’s – how do you have a dialogue with someone like that?”Well, by going to her home.She recently sat down for an interview in her small apartment near Highway 133. Walking into the residence, one is greeted by several framed pictures of spiritual and pop-culture characters: Jesus, Buddha, Forrest Gump, Yoda.Gray grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., studied architectural drafting for two years in college, then went into interior design and drafting. Currently, she works as an interior painter, supplying homes with decorative art. After their son graduated from high school, she and her husband (who asked that his name be left out of this story) gave up their careers for “a life of voluntary simplicity. We decided we wanted to downsize our life and have more time to do what we wanted to do.”The eight-year resident of the valley said it was hard at first. “We have all these ideas that we’re brought up with that you’re supposed to be going forward and getting more, a bigger house and more stuff, a better-paying job. It was hard to reverse all of that.”Playing a pivotal role in her lifestyle change was the book “Mutant Message Down Under.” According to Gray, the New Age novel is about Australian Aborigines, who “refer to modern humans as mutants because we’ve gone away from our Aboriginal selves and we’ve added all these things on top. We don’t just eat meat anymore; we have to have gravy and stuff on top of it. That kind of sparked us to think about our lives in a different way.”
Gray is blunt about her lack of political knowledge in prior years. The attacks of Sept. 11 changed all that, she said.”Before 9/11, I was basically an embryo living in a warm, dark womb of ignorance. When 9/11 happened, much to my surprise and everybody’s around me, I was born as a peace activist. Before that, I didn’t have any clue as to politics. I didn’t read the newspapers, I didn’t watch the news, I didn’t know what was going in the rest of the world and I didn’t care.”When the terrorists struck, Gray said she began investigating why Islamic extremists are targeting the United States. Surfing the Internet, she said she “stumbled” upon information about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.Our financial and military involvement in the region “creates animosity among the Arabs against the United States. I thought, ‘Well that sounds more like a good reason than they hate our freedom.’ It doesn’t make any sense – why would they hate our freedom?”Her letter writing began soon afterward.
When the Bush administration started touting war as the best way to remove Saddam Hussein, Gray, in December 2002, went to Iraq for two weeks “to find out for myself what it is like over there.”She said observers who contended Iraqis were living a cowed life under Saddam were wrong. “It wasn’t anything like what people were describing it as.” But there were exceptions.Did Iraqis she spoke with want Saddam removed? “We couldn’t really talk openly about that. We had a minder with us on certain official occasions. A lot of the time, though, we could walk around the streets and talk to people.”She said the organization she was with, the Christian Peacemaker Team, “asked us not to speak to people directly about Saddam because it could put them in danger. It was a very closed society in that way – they couldn’t really speak out against their government.”She got around the issue by asking them specifically what they thought about the prospects for war. Men, she said, were mainly worried about economic factors such as keeping a job, while the women were generally worried about the safety of their children. They were also worried about strict Shia law being enacted.The trip solidified some of her views, which she didn’t think would be “as controversial as they’ve turned out to be.”
Critics such as Epstein say Gray has crossed the line with her commentaries on Israel and Palestine. She has, of late, relentlessly hammered Israelis for their treatment of Palestinians, whom she compared to black South Africans living under apartheid.”I’m really suspicious of her viewpoints. With all the trouble and aggravation that’s going on all over the world, it seems like she only focuses on Israel,” Epstein said. “There are plenty of oppressed people and people in bad situations all over the world that she never seems to deal with. She only seems to have time to beat on Israel.”Not surprisingly, Gray sees it differently, contending that she is holding up a mirror to Israel and its supporters. “And the reflection is not quite according to the illusion that they have about themselves. So they try to strike at the mirror or they try to strike at me and make me drop the mirror.”Epstein said Gray is simply wrong, particularly in her recounting of the history of the Middle East. Her quoting of the Old Testament to back up her criticism of Israel has also drawn scorn.”You can read the Koran and the Old Testament or the New Testament, and you can find things that are hostile and warlike and you can find things that are loving and peaceful,” Epstein said. “For some reason, Sue only takes the Old Testament’s hostile and warlike statements. She just seems to find the worst things to say.”Many people simply believe the problems in the Middle East will never be truly solved. But Gray is an optimist.
“They said that about women voting, that they’ll never get the vote – but they did,” she said. “And slavery was stopped and segregation was stopped, South Africa ended apartheid. All those times, people said, ‘Oh, that’ll never happen.’ But somehow, people’s minds start changing.”But the peace activist also said she doesn’t think nonviolent methods of protest would work for the Palestinians. She said Palestine is comprised of people with tribal backgrounds who have, with regularity, violently opposed various governments.”I think it’s a little more difficult to say, ‘Why don’t you all just have a sit-in and that’ll solve your problems.’ It’s not that simple for them,” she said.She said what is needed is an effort on the part of the Israelis to also “look in that mirror and see what they’re doing, which is basically what Gandhi forced the British to do.”This is exactly the problem with backers of the Palestinians, Epstein said.”I’m willing to admit that Israel’s made mistakes and that not everything’s perfect,” he said. “I don’t see where she’s admitted that the Arabs ever made any mistakes or that suicide bombers indiscriminately kill men, women and children.”But Palestinians, Gray said, need a nation of their own that “they can move about in and that is not crisscrossed by settlements and walls and things which don’t allow them access to the areas they need to get to. A lot of the violence stems from the fact that every day is so difficult for them.”
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She said the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories, in their pre-1967 state, would be enough to establish a Palestine nation.She would also like to see the United States pull out of Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, though she admits it’s not realistic given our oil stakes in the region. But “anything we could do to make the situation better would be helpful at this point. We’re just going the wrong direction by putting more bases in Iraq. It seems like we’re putting more of a military presence in Muslim countries, which can’t be good.”If it looked like the United States was willing to compromise here and there, that would go a long way toward peace for all of us.”Until that happens, Roaring Fork Valley residents can expect to continue hearing from Sue Gray.Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org