This post is part of a series in which I publish stories and articles I wrote exactly ten years ago. This is a piece of journalism describing families of September 11 victims who rejected the idea of their loved ones’ deaths being used to justify war. For more stories in the series, click here.
A Call for Peace, Not Vengeance
Sept. 14, 2002 — When Terry Rockefeller heard that the World Trade Center had collapsed, she had no idea her younger sister Laura was inside. All she knew was that Laura was working in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday before coming to visit her in Boston on Thursday. As a freelance conference hostess, Laura could have been assigned to any hotel or restaurant in New York.
Rockefeller had been leaving angry messages on her sister’s answering machine all day, wanting to find out where Laura was and if her travel plans would be affected. Then a little before 5 p.m., she got the call. Laura had been working at Windows on the World, on the top floor of the north tower.
As Rockefeller recalled that moment recently, the tears started to roll uncontrollably down her face. Even a year later, after telling the story countless times, the pain was still too much. For the first six months, she said she felt paralyzed by her grief. She postponed all her work as a documentary filmmaker and just concentrated on staying home and caring for her elderly parents.
Earlier this year, she began slowly to return to the outside world and made contact with other victims’ families with whom she could share her grief. She found one particular group, September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, with whom she shared more than grief. She shared with members a feeling of horror at the realization that their grief was being used to justify more killing.
Peaceful Tomorrows is a coalition representing the families of more than 50 victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Its aims are to encourage a more open dialogue on alternative responses to terrorism and to raise awareness of the civilian casualties of war in Afghanistan as well as in the United States. Members of the group have visited Afghanistan to meet with victims’ families there and have called for a compensation fund to be set up for Afghan civilian victims of U.S. bombing.
“We are people who know what it is to lose our relatives to violence,” said Rockefeller. “And I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve gone through.” She looked around Washington Square Park at the 3,000 New Yorkers who had come to express their support for the families in an all-night candlelight vigil they had organized from Sept. 10 to the morning of Sept. 11. “This is gratifying, all of this,” she said. “It’s been hard coming out against the war. We’ve had some criticism. But in the end, by working on this, it’s about the only thing you can do that makes sense of losing a sister.”
David Potorti was one of the group’s founding members. His eldest brother, Jim, was sitting by the window on the 96th floor of the north tower, right where the plane hit. Potorti’s first wish was that the people who killed his brother must be punished. He still feels that to this day. Like other members of Peaceful Tomorrows, he is quick to make it clear that he does not condone or justify what was done, and agrees with President George W. Bush’s goal of “finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.” He feels, however, that the methods of the Bush administration have been ineffective and damaging both to innocent people in Afghanistan and to the security of the United States.
Because of their stance, members of the group have been criticized for lack of patriotism and accused of trying to justify the terrorist attacks. They have often attracted hecklers at the dozens of speeches, peace marches and rallies they have organized all over the country since their inaugural march from Washington D.C. to New York last November. Potorti believes that the criticism is a result of the narrow range of debate in this country, and so he merely redoubles his efforts to promote an open dialogue.
“People are confusing two different discussions,” said Andrew Rice, whose older brother David died in the World Trade Center. “One is the issue of justification. That lasts about two seconds in our group – nothing justifies it. The second discussion is around what leads to resentment against our country. That discussion gets to the root of terrorism and is a vital one to have. But we’re not having it, because the debate is closed: They’re evil, and that’s that.”
He blames the news media for the paucity of public discussion. “It’s hardly surprising when you had Dan Rather admitting the U.S. media had censored itself since Sept. 11,” he said. “And he had to go to Britain to make that statement because he didn’t dare to say it in America.”
Rice was referring to a BBC interview on May 16 in which CBS News anchor Dan Rather said, “There was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tires around people’s necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions. And I am humbled to say I do not except myself from such criticism.”
Rice also believes fear is to blame, but sees bombing campaigns on Afghanistan and potentially Iraq as superficial responses that will make us feel safer but will actually put us in more danger. “I know we’re scared,” he said, “but do we just want to say it’s OK for someone else to suffer to make me feel safe?”
Suffering is something that members of Peaceful Tomorrows can identify with better than anyone else. This is why they have reached out to the families of Afghan victims of U.S. bombing. One of those with whom the group works closely is Masuda Sultan, an Afghan- American who returned to her native land last year to find that 19 members of her extended family had been killed in a U.S. bombing raid as they were trying to flee from Kandahar. Her story did receive coverage in the U.S. press, but she believes it is only because she is an American. “There are lots of other stories like this in Afghanistan, but we don’t hear them,” she said, after telling how her cousin, five months pregnant, was “sliced in half” by a cluster bomb as she stood in the doorway of her friend’s home.
Peaceful Tomorrows’ members try to tell these stories while also helping each other to deal with their own grief. Their numbers are small but growing, and their message is insistent. Andrew Rice summed it up at the vigil when he said, “Our grief is not a cry for war.”