Transforming Personal Grief into Global Healing: Survivors of Violence Converge to Advocate Peace
David Potorti is the Director of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.
We all had choices to make after September 11th, 2001. Whether or not you lost family or friends, whether you were overcome by anger, fear, or compassion, whether your view of the world was rearranged or reinforced, how you chose to live your life after “everything changed” shaped the collective future of our nation and our world. It was truly a “kairos moment,” a time of crisis that could be seized in a life-giving way, or ridden into a greater crisis.
For those of us who founded September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, the direction we chose was consistent with our values, and grew out of who we were. We met in November of 2001 during a symbolic walk linking the Pentagon and the site of the World Trade Center organized by Kathy Kelly and the staff of Voices in the Wilderness (now Voices for Creative Nonviolence, www.vcnv.org). We took to the streets with our small truth because we rejected the idea of bombing Afghanistan as a response to the attacks of 9/11. We did not want the losses our families had experienced — like the loss of my brother, Jim Potorti, at the World Trade Center — to be duplicated among the civilians in Afghanistan.
And though only a handful of us did the walking, we were in good company: a poll taken only days after the September attacks showed that nearly half of Americans did not support the bombing if it would mean significant Afghan civilian casualties. Even then, with fires still burning at the World Trade Center site, there was a human impulse among Americans to align themselves with their peers on the other side of the world, those who had suffered for years under the Taliban and would continue to suffer under a new bombing campaign.
These qualms were a good sign, and one reason why I remember the days after 9/11 as “the good old days,” a time when anything was possible, a moment when the whole world could have come together in common cause against precisely the kind of brutality that now has the world in flames. Then as now, it was all about choices.
Our walk received very little press back in November of 2001, but enough so that a temporary email address we set up came to the attention of the founder of the Parents’ Circle, Yitzhak Frankenthal. He had lost his son, Arik, to a Hamas kidnapping and murder. Believing that he had “failed his son because there was no peace,” he decided to gather together family members of those killed by any side in the cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians to seek together for an end to the cycle. Yitzhak emailed us in December to express common cause with our mission, and I remember his outreach being another good sign, a blip of life and compassion that echoed on our radar screen to let us know that we were not alone.
Some of those who would go on to found Peaceful Tomorrows visited their civilian counterparts in Afghanistan in January, 2002 in a delegation organized by Global Exchange and in so doing cemented the value of what might be called person-to-person diplomacy. Our delegation learned that while many reporters on the ground in Afghanistan had written articles about civilian casualties of the US bombing campaign, getting them printed at that “patriotic” time was another story. That task became much easier when those casualties could be described in the context of meetings between Afghan families and US citizens who had suffered loss on 9/11. Speaking engagements outside our borders made us aware that the face of America seen around the world was the face of President Bush. The idea that there were other faces — and other viewpoints — elicited a sigh of relief from many around the world.
When we launched Peaceful Tomorrows as an organization on Valentine’s Day of 2002, we based our name on Martin Luther King’s observation, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” The Japanese media took a special interest. Thanks to that coverage, we were contacted by the Hiroshima Alliance for Nuclear Weapons Abolition, which asked if we, as the survivors of those killed on 9/11, might host a delegation of hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors, in a visit to the World Trade Center site.
We hosted the hibakusha in April of 2002, shortly after my brother’s remains from the World Trade Center had been positively identified by DNA testing. That morning I visited the NY Medical Examiner’s office where I learned about the size of the bone fragment that had been recovered, and the blunt force trauma that had created it. I stood under a white tent outside the office, where there were a number of refrigerated trailers, and paid my respects to the trailer that held his remains. Then I walked to the World Trade Center site and joined the hibakusha, who almost 60 years earlier had been targeted so violently by our government and had survived the maelstrom, nursing enduring wounds, only to dedicate the rest of their lives to calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. It was a powerful leap of solidarity across time. Though we as a nation had hurt them so terribly, it was the hibakusha who came to us, the 9/11 family members, to extend their sympathy and to stand with us in solidarity. It was another connection, another realization that what we were doing was resonating with others.
As Peaceful Tomorrows grew, other connections followed. Jo Berry, who had lost her father to an IRA bomb, later arranged to meet the man who planted the bomb, in an effort to understand the sources of violence. Today, Berry runs an organization called Building Bridges for Peace. She sent a message of support that touched all of us in the early days of our organization.
Father Michael Lapsley, who had supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and had lost his hands to a letter bomb delivered by the government, met one of our founders, Colleen Kelly, on a post-9/11 panel in New York City. In 2004, another Peaceful Tomorrows member, Andrew Rice, participated in a “Healing of Memories” workshop led by Lapsley on Robben Island, marking the tenth anniversary of democracy in South Africa. The visit had particular significance for Rice, who lost his brother David at the World Trade Center. David Rice had studied as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa in 1996.
Lapsley grew to become another spiritual advisor to our new group, and in 2005 joined us in Oklahoma City for commemorations marking the tenth anniversary of the Murrah Federal Building bombing. Conversations captured that weekend became the Peaceful Tomorrows DVD, Beyond Retribution, in which participants who lost loved ones to war and terrorism in Oklahoma City, on September 11, 2001, and in Iraq talked about methods for coping with our pain by transcending the urge for vengeance.
The support of others around the world has been critical to our ability to continue our work. If those who have suffered so terribly, and have lived under oppressive conditions that put them face to face with injustice and violence for long periods of time, could remain true to their values and find a way to focus on a struggle bigger than their own, then surely people in the US, many of us surrounded by comfort and relative security, could find a similar place in our hearts to conduct peace work. We found ourselves returning the favor by reaching out to those who were suffering as a result of other terrorist incidents and the backlash to these attacks — family members and survivors of the Bali nightclub bombing, immigrants suffering hate crimes, civilians in Iraq who lost loved ones to the US bombing campaign, those who had lost family members to the train bombings in Spain and Britain. In doing so, we learned that we have much in common.
The Bush administration makes constant references to “dangerous people” in “dangerous parts of the world.” Wouldn’t it be better to focus on brave, visionary people in dangerous parts of the world, people who have risen above their own losses and chosen to break the cycle of violence in order to create a better world? People who share our aspirations as human beings and as world citizens? People who have something to teach us about creative and life-affirming responses to terrorism, violence, and war? These are the people who are not found on TV screens across America, or in mainstream newspapers or magazines. Their stories are not heard or honored. And their wisdom is not shared.
This fall, Peaceful Tomorrows would like to change that. We are convening a meeting of more than 30 extraordinary individuals from around the world who are devoted to cooperation, healing, and reconciliation. Together we will meet to establish an international network that will share ideas and information. Each of the men and women joining this network has been personally affected by violence yet has rejected the idea of retaliating with further violence. Instead, we have successfully built bridges between groups previously in conflict, and have formed organizations to promote justice, reconciliation, and genuine peace.
This international gathering will begin with private sessions at the Garrison Institute, and will continue with public events at sites throughout New York City in the days leading up to the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Students, 9/11 family groups, and other members of the public will hear stories from people including:
Father Romain Rurangirwa (Rwanda), lost his entire family — parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, in-laws — along with neighbors and friends, to the 1994 massacre that took the lives of nearly 35,000 Tutsis in his village alone. Rurangirwa became a Roman Catholic priest ministering to genocide survivors. He is currently pursuing Master’s degrees in Pastoral Care and Counseling as well as Conflict Resolution at Brandeis, and plans to return to Rwanda.
Naba S. Hamid is a Professor at the University of Baghdad, who was prohibited, from pursuing any scientific activities as a result of her refusal to join the Ba’ath party. In 2003, Naba founded New Horizons For Women, to help women deal with the “multiple traumas that have robbed them of hope and skills for their future.”
Olga Takaeva is a member of the Mothers of Beslan, and was present during the 2004 Beslan school hostage crisis where armed Chechens killed hundreds of hostages, including children, after holding them for three days. As one of the coordinators of the organization For the Health of the Nation, Olga is engaged in efforts aimed at assisting people with disabilities, orphans, and parents suffering from the Beslan attack.
Jesús Abril Escusa lost his son to the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid. He became a founding member of Asociación 11-M Afectados por el Terrorismo, which operates on the principles of truth, justice, and peace.
Afifa Azim represents the Afghan Women’s Network, a non-partisan network of women’s NGOs working to empower Afghan women and ensure their equal participation in Afghan society.
Learn more about our other attendees by visiting our website, .
We believe that the fifth anniversary of 9/11 is a crucial opportunity for Americans to consider alternatives to war. This conference could be a seed from which a multitude of new initiatives to eradicate attacks on civilians and promote peace might grow worldwide. We hope that these powerful exemplars of the moral power of transcending vengeance and embracing hope can help transform our societies’ cultures of violence into cultures of peace — one person at a time, one story at a time, and one changed attitude at a time.