Laura Bush was at the Colonial Fire Hall in Hamilton, New Jersey, telling about 700 pre-selected ticket-holding Bush faithful why they needed to vote for her husband.
The First Lady went through the usual litany of what she believed were her husband’s accomplishments, frequently invoking the memory of 9-11. And then she told the crowd why the nation needed to support her husband’s war. “It’s for our country, it’s for our children and our grandchildren, that we do the hard work of confronting terror and promoting democracy,” she said.
That’s when Sue Niederer, a 55-year-old teacher and Realtor, standing at the back of the hall, just couldn’t take it any more. “If the Iraq war is so necessary,” she called out, “why don’t your children serve?” That’s when the secret service came by, when Republican volunteers pushed and shoved her and raised Bush campaign signs around her to block her from talking and to prevent the media from turning their cameras to her. A few in the crowd had tried to come to her defence, one person shouting out, “She has a right to speak. She’s a mother.” But, the “right to speak” was drowned out, as were Niederer’s own comments, by the partisan chant, “Four More Years! Four more years!” - just in case Niederer or anyone else had anything to say that the crowd thought might be high treason.
Until she spoke out, exercising what she believed were her First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, most had not seen her shirt. Shortly before she spoke out, she put on a T-shirt with a picture of her 24-year-old son, and the words, “President Bush, You Killed My Son.” Her son was Second Lt Seth Dvorin, of the army’s 10th Mountain Division. He was wounded in November 2003 from a roadside bomb. On February 3, 2004, he was killed in Iraq by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED), sometimes known as booby-traps and land mines.
Dvorin wasn’t trained for bomb disposal, says his mother. What he was trained to do was to be an air defence artillery officer. But, training matters little in war. His unit had been sent to locate IEDs along roads. “It was a suicide mission,” says Niederer. “They’re still sending out patrols on foot to locate IEDs,” she says.
After their son was killed, Niederer and her ex-husband, Richard Dvorin, a retired New Brunswick police officer, both sent letters to the president: the only response was a form letter asking for campaign contributions. Niederer had spoken out on a number of times, but now with Laura Bush in town, this grieving mother wanted to make sure that another mother heard her anguish.
Secret service and Hamilton police forcibly removed Niederer from the hall. “They told me this is a private party,” she recalls. She showed authorities her ticket; they confiscated it. Outside the hall, she was handcuffed: she demanded to know what she was being charged with, but was never told. Police put her into a police van, drove her around for more than a half-hour, probably to keep her away from the media, and then took her to the police station where she was charged with defiant trespass. The next day, the Mercer County prosecutor refused to pursue the police charge.
Only a few local newspapers picked up the story; the national media essentially ignored it. But, videotapes of her arrest were shown to her son’s troops in Iraq. The intent, she says, was to say, “Look at how unpatriotic she is: look at what she did.” Opposing the Bush administration is not seen by that administration or their followers as a First Amendment right, but as unpatriotic disloyalty, the greatest sin.
Her son had been pursued by recruiters since high school. “I told them that Seth was going to go to college,” she says, “but they kept going after him”. He had majored in criminal justice at Rutgers University, hoping to become an FBI agent. The army, says Niederer, “convinced him that they would train him for the FBI, that he’d never see the front lines.” His three month officer candidate school training “was a total positive experience,” she says.
Shortly after completing OCS, he was sent to Iraq, a few days after being married. The army first claimed Dvorin was killed while disarming a bomb, and then changed the official reason for death to having been killed by the IED while on patrol. The army ordered an autopsy and then embalmment for the devout Jew, something the religion doesn’t permit, and which, says Niederer, the army knew. “There was no necessity for it,” says Niederer, “but his widow gave permission”. The army claims a rabbi was present at the autopsy. The army also promoted Dvorin to first lieutenant, and then rescinded that promotion because he didn’t have enough time in rank. With four different conflicting reports, it took almost nine months for the army to give his family its final version about how he died.
Greg Nieder, her Republican husband, is supportive of her anti-war campaign. “He wasn’t at the beginning,” she says, noting that, "he didn’t quite understand what I was doing and why. He had never spoken out against the government, no matter which government was in control. It just wasn’t his nature." And then they went to the premiere of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. After seeing that film, he turned to his wife and apologised for not supporting her more strongly. “Everything you’ve been yelling about,” she remembers him telling her, “it’s right there”. He now attends more rallies with her.
Sue Niederer began speaking out after her son died. During the Vietnam War, she says she was young, “and I didn’t get involved in too much”. To her, “it was more important to bring up my children, to be a stay-at-home mom." Nor did she protest mini-invasions into Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua and other countries. Nor the first Gulf War. She didn’t promote the various military incursions; she didn’t oppose them: she just was apolitical. “I wasn’t doing what I should have been doing,” she says. “I should have been more actively pursuing what I believed, but I allowed others to do what I should have done.”