Ending the Cycle of Terror

Neil deMause

As September 11, 2002 loomed, most everyone I knew in New York City was filled with a sense of dread. Not dread of more terrorist attacks—we’d all long since become accustomed to Orange Alerts and armed National Guardsmen in the subways, and no longer jumped every time we heard the words “suspicious package.” (Not much, anyway.) No, our fear was because, after almost a year of being left to grieve in relative peace and quiet, the 9/11 Memorial Industry was about to land full force, descending like Bush in his helicopter to talk of “heroes” and pretend that some glory could be found in the senseless deaths of thousands of our friends and neighbors.

Amidst it all, however, was one ray of light: Starting on the evening of September 10, a group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was holding a 24-hour vigil in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, to honor their dead and plead for the living. As dusk fell on a sea of candles, Peaceful Tomorrows member Andrew Rice read the names of family members lost—his brother David among them—then declared: “Collateral damage is no less tragic than someone being killed in the World Trade Center or Pentagon. The consequence that it has on families like ours is very real. … We as family members, and we as citizens who are the direct victims of other people’s wars, we’re the ones who have to deal with this. And this is our day to define as a sacred day—not a day for retribution, but a day of remembrance and humility.”

Rice’s words that autumn evening, spoken off-the-cuff, are not reprinted in the group’s new collective autobiography, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief into Action for Peace, but plenty more like them are. Written by David Potorti, a North Carolina journalist whose brother died in Tower One, Peaceful Tomorrows interweaves the story of the group—founded via Internet missives in the wake of the bombing of Afghanistan, and named for a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows”—with those of its members, reprinting essays and e-mails by individuals like Phyllis and Orlando Rodriguez. The White Plains couple’s “Not In Our Son’s Name” letter swept the Internet in the days before the invasion of Afghanistan. “Their losses would be multiplied a thousand times over,” writes Potorti, “each one the loss of an entire world.”

If you could read that last sentence without your eyes tearing up, you probably don’t live in New York. (Or Baghdad. Or Kabul.) It must be different for those who, instead of walking through ashfall that moments before was concrete and steel and flesh and blood, experienced the attacks solely as television drama, and responded (if CNN is to be believed) mostly with cries for retaliation—as The Onion famously parodied in its post-9/11 TV listings, “A Nation Looks Around for Someone to Hit.” For New Yorkers, 9/11 was not our Pearl Harbor, but a horrible grief that settled over the city like the stench that lingered for weeks afterward—if you didn’t know someone who died, you surely knew someone who knew someone. And if you didn’t, you soon enough came to feel like you knew the faces and names that blanketed every phone booth, light pole, and blank wall across lower Manhattan.

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It was a powerful moment. And, forged in that moment, the fledgling activists soon realized that this power could be harnessed to fight the horrors to come. And so, along with fruitless letters to government officials (included here, along with a particularly mealy-mouthed reply from Condoleezza Rice) and the lobbying for an Afghan Victims Fund to parallel those for 9/11 victims (ultimately scotched by the U.S. government, notes Potorti, for fear of having to repeat the process for Iraqis), they went on missions to meet their counterparts in the nations being made to pay for the deaths of their loved ones.

And it’s here that their activism, and the book, really comes alive. The talking heads’ endless nattering about weapons of mass destruction is stripped away, leaving Rita Lasar, whose brother perished in the World Trade Center, standing before the ruins of a mosque, staring in horror and recognition at the building’s ruined metal frame jutting up from the ground: “a sight identical, except in size,” she writes, “to what I had seen at Ground Zero a few days earlier.”

Which is surely no news to Afghans. But Lasar and her comrades soon realize they have a special power: as relatives of the sainted dead, they are allowed media access they never could have had as mere citizens. And even if the media doesn’t quite know what to do with them—the New York Times cropping out their protest signs in photos, Connie Chung looking sympathetically into the eyes of a delegation just returned from Iraq and asking whether such an act couldn’t be considered “unpatriotic”—they keep working to put across the message that declaring “war on terror” is not the only response to grief. (In that light, the packaging here is somewhat unfortunate: The book is accessible enough to find a place in the growing popular literature of 9/11, which makes it a bit off-putting to see a title that wouldn’t look out of place on a Workers World banner.)

Peaceful Tomorrows is more dialogue than treatise—several chapters close with e-mail messages sent to www.peacefultomorrows.org by both fans and detractors—and recoils from easy conclusions, which is as it should be when faced with a world that includes both the Bush tyranny and the Taliban, cluster bombs and ethnic cleansing. But they do allow for one conclusion, as powerful as it is deceptively simple. As Kelly Campbell writes, after a visit to an Afghan bride and groom who lost 19 family members to a U.S. bombing raid: “It is only when we recognize and begin to act on the knowledge that we are truly one human family, that we can bring honor to those who died.”

Neil deMause is a regular contributor to In These Times, and the editor of heremagazine​.com. His article Bad to Worse: Welfare Reform Is Up for Reauthorization, But It’s Only Going to Get Meaner” (ITT, Sept. 2, 2002) was selected by Project Censored as one of its Top 25 Censored Media Stories of 2002-03.
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