Saddam Hussein arrived in our mailbox a couple of weeks ago. His face, with a red slash through it, was on a color postcard delivered to our (wrong) address by a fill-in mail carrier. Beneath his mustachioed face were the words, “JUST SAY NO…” and on the flip side, next to a small icon of Hussein raising a rifle in the air, was, “…TO BRUTAL TYRANTS.” It was an Operation Iraqi Freedom postcard made by U.S. Allegiance Inc. and sent free through the military postal service. “Hey, did I mention that it’s hot here?” wrote the sender. “Hope all is well. I’m off to Baghdad in another week or so. Hope UR enjoying summer–I’m not!”
As I dropped the card back in the mail, I couldn’t help considering the story it told about the strange trajectory we’ve taken since Sept. 11, 2001–the day American Airlines flight 11 flew directly into my brother Jim’s offices in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
How, exactly, did we get from the day the French declared “We are all Americans” to the day when American prestige is at its lowest point in history? How did we get from the day when Iranians held spontaneous candlelight vigils for our dead to a time when the world views us with the same mixture of sadness and fear we might feel toward a trusted friend who’s lost his mind? Who hijacked the planes, and who hijacked the story? And how do we return to that split in the road when everyone, it seemed, was ready to join us in creating a new paradigm for a new century, a century following one in which a hundred million people died in war, and 80 percent of them were civilians?
As Donald Rumsfeld remarked after 9/11, “The era of the safe war is over.” The fact that anyone could imagine a “safe war” speaks to our nation’s remarkable shortage of empathy for the rest of humanity. And the fact that our need for “safety” has played such a huge role in making the world less safe for everyone, including ourselves, suggests that we don’t know what safety is nor where it comes from.
It was nearly three years ago when I began dealing, publicly, with that issue. I had lost my brother, who was 52 and worked for Marsh & McLennan at the Trade Center, leaving behind his wife, his parents and two younger brothers. With barely enough time to even consider the depth of our loss, it became clear that my brother’s death was going to be invoked, as I would later write, “on any number of occasions, for any number of purposes, by people we didn’t know, and in many cases, didn’t agree with or care for.”
Today, the ownership issue remains acute and, at times, ugly. But it also remains at the core of what we will ultimately make of Sept. 11; the question is who controls the narrative and who frames the story. Was Sept. 11 the day America joined the rest of the world, or was it an exceptional event that gave us license to respond in an exceptional (extra-legal, immoral, unjustified) way? Was it a day when it became more important to be an American than to be a human being?
At one of my first public speaking events about 9/11, a high school assembly in New Jersey in November 2001, I said, “I don’t feel like an American right now. I feel like I’m part of something bigger.” It would be the first time that a school administrator would tell me to watch what I said.
But feeling like my loss was part of something bigger was what had informed my decision to join a “walk for healing and peace” initiated by Kathy Kelly and the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness. Just after Thanksgiving 2001, five family members of 9/11 victims walked from the Pentagon to the World Trade Center, and along the way we told our personal stories–in schools, churches and person-to-person.
It was in telling our stories that we connected with other people and located who we were and what we had lost–our people, for sure, but something more. Terrorism destroys a lot of things, but what it mostly destroys are connections: connections with each other, with our histories, with our traditions, and with the rest of the world.
Our work with September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, which grew out of that peace walk and was launched on Feb. 14, 2002, has been about remaking those connections, refilling those holes. And as a result, we’ve come to be filled with stories from others around the world who have suffered the way we’ve suffered and who have learned what we’ve learned from 9/11.
Crossing national boundaries (members of our group have spoken in nine foreign countries) and political boundaries (we talk to conservatives, members of the military and people across the board who challenge our propositions) has done a great deal to reduce the fear, anger and sense of hopelessness many of us felt after losing members of our families on 9/11. We work hard at what we do, challenging our own assumptions and stereotypes in an effort to create a space where people of goodwill can connect, learn from each other, and co-exist in a difficult world.
But we’ve come to know something else–the powerful institutional forces at work today whose goal is to keep us apart from each other and from the power we have as human beings who share common ground.
A s we were told to barricade ourselves from the rest of the world, we recognized that the rest of the world–with the exception of that relatively small number of fanatics who would do us harm–was not our enemy. So members of our nascent organization went to Afghanistan in January 2002 in a show of solidarity with the civilian victims of terrorism, violence and war. We heard their stories and learned that the press, including the American press, had tried to tell those stories. But it was the catalyst of American family members of 9/11 victims that made it possible to tell them.
When “battlefield nuclear weapons” and “bunker busters” returned to the military’s wish list, we were contacted by Japanese hibakusha who survived the 1945 U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A delegation of their elderly members came to New York City in April 2002, and we took them to the World Trade Center site. We told them our stories, and they told us theirs–which through years of witness had been codified into documents translated into English, and which demanded “never again.”
We learned that kids in Japan were growing “tired with peace” and tired of being told from birth about the horrors of nuclear war. The hibakusha saw in us a way to revitalize that conversation. Today, aging hibakusha are being linked with younger Japanese, who are schooled in their elders’ stories for six months and then travel to the United States to share their oral histories with Americans.
As American foreign policy grew inexplicably partisan in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we heard from the Parents’ Circle, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who had lost children to violence and had pledged to end the cycle of violence. Today, they engage their communities with projects like Hello, Peace! (Hello Shalom-Hello Salaam!), which links Israelis and Palestinians who choose to participate by dialing particular phone numbers; and One Blood, which initiated mutual blood donations in Jerusalem and Ramallah, symbolizing “one blood-one pain-one future.”
As we were driven to war in Iraq through the demonization of that ancient nation as the embodiment of Saddam Hussein, we sent a delegation there in January 2003 to call attention to the human suffering that had resulted from war, sanctions and the threat of new war. Again, it was all about stories, theirs and ours. “We are a proud people,” went one of them, “and we will not be occupied.”
When family members of Guantanamo detainees grew weary of their loved ones’ seemingly endless imprisonment, we joined with Bob Edgar and the National Council of Churches and many others in calling not for the release of terrorists but for due process–that those imprisoned be charged or released. We heard what it was like to have a family member disappear into a legal system without any form of legal recourse, to not know if they were alive or dead. And we came to appreciate the Constitutional protections we take for granted.
This past spring, when the image of a real dead body appeared in a political ad, we asked all politicians to refrain from using 9/11 images for political purposes, trying to convey a sense of the real pain experienced, and continuing to be experienced, by some of those who lost family that day.
That there was such a backlash to this particular event–as witnessed in the Independent (indyweek.com/durham/2004-03-17/news.html) –speaks to danger posed by crossing boundaries. In this case, a boundary between the reality of our loved ones’ suffering and death and the use of their deaths as partisan political symbols. The same was true of our forays into Iraq and Afghanistan to connect with innocent civilians there. “It is hard to defy the wisdom of the tribe, the wisdom that values the lives of its members above all others,” wrote Susan Sontag. “It will always be unpopular–it will always be deemed unpatriotic–to say that the lives of the members of the other tribe are as valuable as one’s own.”
The result, if one continues with Sontag’s analogy, is that that you might get kicked out of the tribe–if not physically, then at least in terms of relevance. One of the more astounding results of our post-9/11 drive to preemptive war and our self-identified exceptionalism is the disdain the establishment holds for those who disagree with it–the need to banish those views to the fringes of the tribe. But I’ve always felt that those who have been there, who have suffered from the realities of terrorism, violence and war, are those who deserve a special hearing. That members of the military are now joining the ranks of the “disappeared” in terms of their stories reflects the extent to which our actions proceed further and further into an almost pathological denial of reality.
I t always comes back to the stories. And the stories from the troops, at least the ones able to talk about it, are about killing civilians. I heard a lot of them at the Veterans for Peace Convention in Boston this summer. Jimmy Massey of Asheville, a 13-year Marine veteran and a platoon sergeant in the 7th Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, makes it clear that we’ve been lied to by the media. He tells of firefights that were fabricated out of thin air for the benefit of newspaper readers, of ghost towns all the way to Baghdad as a result of Iraqis simply surrendering and letting us enter their country, of troops emptying their weapons and ordinance into the walls of buildings for the sake of show–“your tax dollars at work.”
He talks about his grief at killing unarmed civilians as they took part in a peaceful demonstration as a result of our own propaganda leaflets, which invited people to keep the schools open, go to work, and use their newfound freedom to demonstrate if they liked. He talks about an Iraqi kid who came to the gate of their military compound with a plea about needing insulin to go on living. Massey told his superior officer about the boy and was told there was nothing the military–which was able to mount an occupation of an entire nation–could do about it. Massey quit the military, told them to keep his pay and his pension, and founded a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War (www.ivaw.net). “I didn’t join the Marines to kill civilians,” Massey says. “We caused the insurgency.”
Dorothy Mackey, USAF/Capt./CC, who was raped during her military service and denied compensation by the military, talks about the high incidence of rape and sexual abuse among service people. Mackey is now executive director of STAAMP, Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (www.STAAAMP.org). She held up a dress worn by her youngest client, a 3-year-old girl who had been repeatedly gang-raped by her military dad and his friends.
I got to meet Kevin and Joyce Lucey, parents of Marine Jeff Lucey, who fought in the battle of Nasiriyah during a five-month deployment to Iraq. After returning to the United States, Lucey suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, was kicked out of a veterans hospital because of his alcohol abuse, and hung himself in his parents’ house with a garden hose. The night before his killed himself, his dad said he was obsessing about a 5-year-old Iraqi girl. One of his fellow servicemen decided that “he was going to be a warrior” and earned his stripes by slitting the girl’s throat. Lucey never got over the guilt of thinking he should have saved her.
Then there’s Fernando Suarez del Solar, who lost his son, Jesus, when he stepped on a U.S. cluster bomb. The military told del Solar that his son had been shot in the head, and it wasn’t until he traveled to Iraq himself that he learned the story of what actually happened. Today, del Solar, a former 7-Eleven cashier, has created a foundation, Guerrero Azteca (Aztec Warrior, www.guerreroazteca.org), in his son’s name “to teach young people about the harsh reality of military service, and provide them with modest scholarships.”
At a recent Peaceful Tomorrows speaking event in Harlem, Michael Berg, the father of Nick Berg, an independent contractor beheaded in Iraq after spending time in American custody, spoke about his longtime anti-war activities and why we were still dealing with war, admitting to the “comfort level” that kept him from doing all he could to end it. Today, he says, his bravery comes from “nothing left to lose.”
Berg spoke candidly about his reluctance to do media interviews in the United States, and talked about an appearance he made on Good Morning, America shortly after his son’s murder. Host Charles Gibson made a deal for seven minutes, the first half focusing on Nick and the second half on his opposition to the war in Iraq. When he showed up wearing an anti-war T-shirt, they asked him to take it off. When he wouldn’t, they turned the TV monitors around so he wouldn’t notice they were cropping out the message on his chest. And after four minutes, they dismissed him without mentioning his anti-war views.
S ome stories get told and some stories don’t. Cindy and Craig Corrie, who lost their daughter, Rachel, when she was run over by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to stop the demolition of a Palestinian pharmacist’s home in Rafa, southern Gaza, located their daughter again through the stories told by friends and admirers there. In every home, Cindy says, there were pictures of Rachel that they had never seen before–Rachel, living on in stories that would be told of their struggle for independence and nationhood.
People die, but it’s the stories that live on. Last week, nearly three years after Sept. 11, 2001, members of Peaceful Tomorrows joined Voices in the Wilderness’ Kathy Kelly for a speaking event at the Church of the Holy Apostles, two blocks from the Republican National Convention. And we told our stories again.
Talat Hamdani, a Pakistani-American high school English teacher, talked about losing her son, Salman, a 22-year-old, part-time ambulance driver, police cadet and incoming medical student, on 9/11. Because of his Muslim name, the New York Post viciously and publicly accused him of being involved in the 9/11 attacks. Six months later, on March 20, 2002, his remains were positively identified at the site of the World Trade Center. It’s believed that he heard about the attack on his way to work, and rushed over to see if he could help. Hamdani’s husband, 57, lost the will to live and died a month ago.
Bob McIlvaine, whose son Bobby died at the World Trade Center, remarked that the excruciating physical effort of “Stonewalk”–our summer project in which we pulled a 1,400-pound granite memorial “to the unknown civilians killed in war” from Boston to New York–allowed him to draw closer to the experience of pain that his son must have felt that day.
And Adele Welty, whose NYC firefighter son, Timothy, was lost in the line of duty at the World Trade Center, leaving behind a young son and daughter, summed up the depth of her pain when she tearfully recalled, “He never came home.”
It’s the stories we remember, the stories that reconnect us. And in the absence of the people we loved, they are all we have. But through our work with September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, we have something more–a deeper understanding of the truth, told through the stories of others.
In the coming years, what kind of stories will people in Iraq and Afghanistan be telling about us?
David Potorti lives in Cary and is the founder of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. He’ll be part of a panel discussion on Thursday, Sept. 9, after a 7:30 p.m. showing of the film Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear and the Selling of American Empire at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture on the Duke University campus.
I will tell you something about stories
They aren’t just entertainment
Don’t be fooled
They are all we have, you see
All we have to fight off illness and death
You don’t have anything
If you don’t have stories.
Their evil is mighty
But it can’t stand up to our stories
So they try to destroy the stories
Let the stories be confused or forgotten
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then
Leslie Marmon Silko
–From Ceremony (a novel)