David Potorti’s office smells of freshly cut wood and computer printer ink. The space, carved out of a section of the garage at his home in Cary, is decorated with political posters, maps of the world, his son’s artwork, and a large, blue-bordered calendar with dates crossed off and notes scrawled in the squares: “Canada?”, “Speak full panel.”
Every morning, Potorti reports to his office to answer a phone that never seems to stop ringing. From his desk, which he says is “usually covered by a foot of paper,” he answers calls from California, Washington, D.C., London and Tokyo. He sends e-mails, writes grant applications, sets up speaking engagements, talks to reporters and juggles scores of other tasks related to his work as co-director of Peaceful Tomorrows, an organization of people who lost family members on Sept. 11.
Peaceful Tomorrows is no ordinary support group. Its 40 core members (there are 700 additional “supporters”) have turned their grief outward, dedicating themselves to preventing others from experiencing such sorrow. The group’s mission is to “seek effective, nonviolent responses to terrorism and to identify a commonality with all people similarly affected by violence throughout the world.” As steps in that direction, Peaceful Tomorrows is urging the U.S. government to compensate innocent victims of the American-led bombing of Afghanistan, and members are speaking out against President Bush’s threatened war against Iraq.
Instead of a rush to unilateral military action, the group supports improved security, intelligence and diplomatic activities that will lead to the capture and trial before an international court of those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington. On the domestic front, Peaceful Tomorrows is calling for a “meaningful, independent investigation of how and why the Sept. 11 attacks occurred”–something they note has yet to happen. (Visit www.peacefultomorrows.org for the full statement).
A few weeks after his eldest brother, Jim, died on the 95th floor of the World Trade Center, Potorti wrote a first-person essay for The Independent (“Collateral Damage,” Oct. 17, 2001) that focused on how grief–both personal and national–was being used to justify a new kind of war.
“It’s times like these that America becomes two countries,” wrote Potorti, a former television writer/producer. “For one group, tragedy unites them in fellowship. … Then there’s the other group, the kind for whom an event of this order sharpens the lines of separation and difference. These people want blood–or at least, unquestioning allegiance.”
His hunger for a different response is what led Potorti to help found Peaceful Tomorrows in February (the group’s official launch date was Valentine’s Day). Members met via the Internet, where they read each other’s letters, articles and essays, and realized they were kindred spirits–people for whom the government’s wide-ranging war on terrorism offered no solace because it seemed destined only to perpetuate violence.
Group members are young and old, Republican and Democrat, Jewish and Christian. They’re not recruited, they select themselves for membership based on a mutual feeling that alternative responses to the Sept. 11 tragedy are urgently needed. “We’re just a bunch of people who had no business knowing each other and now we’re like family,” Potorti says.
They’ve needed to lean on each other. There are still nightmares, tears and questions too painful to answer. Potorti’s brother’s remains were found last October and identified in March. His family is planning a private memorial next month.
Besides their private grief, Peaceful Tomorrows members have had to withstand public criticism from people who view their mission as unpatriotic or even dangerous. And they’ve made personal sacrifices along the way. Potorti dropped out of the graduate oral history program at UNC-Chapel Hill so he could devote his attention full time to organizing. He and his family have been living mostly off of credit cards, since Peaceful Tomorrows doesn’t yet have the funds to pay a regular salary.
Last week, we caught up with Potorti as he was packing for a national speaking tour leading up to the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. On Sept. 11, group members will be part of an interfaith service marking the opening of the 57th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. He’ll spend the day at Ground Zero making himself available to reporters. “I feel guilty that I’m not going to be with my parents,” Potorti says. “But I feel like I have to take advantage of all the attention to let people know not all Americans want a war.”
Here’s what else he had to say:
The Independent: One of the most eloquent parts of your group’s 2002 statement is where it says this country has never really taken a hard look at why Sept. 11 happened. Why do you think it happened?
David Potorti: I was doing a radio call-in show last night and one woman said, “There’s this school in Saudi Arabia and they’re training to bomb us.” And I said, “That’s true. But why?” That’s the thing nobody wants to ask. Personally, I think that the way we’ve dealt with our foreign policy in the Middle East has a lot to do with it. We’ve aligned ourselves with a dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and we haven’t changed our attitude about them because we’ve had this relationship with them for 50 years. I think the problems happen when we don’t stay true to our values. There have always been people who’ve hated us. The question is, what do you do about it? Do you kill them all? Bomb them all?
So what would work to prevent another Sept. 11?
Beefed up intelligence, diplomacy. Being multilateral instead of unilateral. It doesn’t work just to align ourselves against everyone else in the world. We don’t claim to have the answers. We’re just saying we need to start asking some critical questions.
Tell us about some of the responses to your work.
We’re like politicians–we hear from the extremes on both sides of this. Then there’s this huge middle that we don’t hear from. The most frequently asked questions of us come from misunderstanding what we’re saying: Are we going to sing “Kumbaya” with Osama? People perceive us as dopey pacifists–as naïve. You know, I don’t really care that anyone listens. I’m doing this for me. All the rewards of doing this accrue to me. I’m doing it to get clarity in my own mind. I’m doing it to save my soul. I can’t save my brother. But I can save myself.
This event has put me in a position where I have nothing left to lose. My brother is dead. How much more can you hurt me than I’ve already been hurt? And I think we have to stop putting other people in this position. Because it gives you this enormous sense of freedom to do what your heart desires–for good or bad. So I can understand how a kid in Afghanistan, who no longer has parents and whose life is a living hell, would feel they have nothing to lose. I mean, I can look out my window here and I see flowers and Kroger’s just down the street. But what if there was no food? Or if my baby had died for lack of five cents worth of medicine, like in Iraq? The point is we should be bombing people with kindness, building up their countries. Clearly we’re not helping enough.
You wrote in your First Person essay that it was hard to respond to those hailing your brother as a hero. Do you still feel that way?
Whether he’s a hero or not is beside the point. Heroes are people who put themselves in harm’s way, like the firemen. Right now, it’s just beginning to dawn on me that he’s gone, that we’re not going to see him again. I’m still having those flashback kinds of memories. I still feel a lot of sadness about my parents and about my son who doesn’t have his uncle. You think about all the love that was lost on Sept. 11–all the people who are gone who can no longer give love. We have to help fill up those holes. And not just in our own country.
Peaceful Tomorrows’ statement says we need to stop dropping bombs and start paying attention; start asking hard questions. What questions should we be asking?
We have to get beyond the idea that nothing we do is wrong and what we do never has any effect on people. We need to pay attention to how we should be interacting with the rest of the world. We need to have a vision of what kind of world we want to live in. The scariest thing for me is that we seem to have no other vision besides being the sole superpower. And the media is so right wing and militaristic. The debate is, should we invade Iraq next week or next month? It’s dangerous to have a media that’s so narrow in its spectrum of discussion.
Has this last year made you angry?
I’ve only been angry once, at a military guy who sent me this really insulting e-mail. He said he was shipping out to Kuwait and he had no use for people like me who didn’t want to protect his family’s safety. He said, “Thank you for no support.” And I thought, “No, thank you for no support! You didn’t defend me on Sept. 11.” I waited awhile until I could be reasonable and then I sent him an answer. And he sent me one back that was also reasonable. Mostly I haven’t been angry; I’ve just felt sad, very sad–that it had to come to this and that there’s so much anger and hatred out there.
How do your parents and your sister-in-law feel about the work you’re doing?
They totally support me, though I’m sure they don’t agree with everything I’m saying. My sister-in-law is really active in the (World Trade Center) rebuilding effort and she’s on all sorts of committees. We’re so busy we don’t get to see much of each other. But she supports what I’m doing and I support what she’s doing.
You said earlier you were doing this to save your soul. What are you saving it from?
If you really believe in the Christian ideal of Satan and being tested–I think this is a test of what we believe. I’ve thought a lot this past year about what it means to be brave in America. I think the people in my group are really brave to be speaking out at a time when we’re so afraid. What am I saving myself from? If I go and kill a bunch of innocent children in another country because I’m afraid, I fail the test. If I throw out my Constitution because I’m afraid, I fail the test. On Sept. 11, what most Americans lost was a sense of pride and security. But pride is really the devil. “We’re doing this because we’re the superpower.” That’s pride talking. Pride is a bad thing.
What about the sense of security?
Yes, that was a loss. I feel in danger from the al-Qaeda network and from some wacko who might come after me because they don’t like what I’m saying. My wife and I have talked about this and she’s worried about our safety. But she feels that it’ll be worse if I don’t speak out. That we’ll be even less safe if we don’t speak out now.
Are you hopeful?
I’m hopeful because I have to be hopeful and because I’m doing every single thing I can to make sure that people know how I feel. I’m terrified of flying and now all I do is fly. I couldn’t fly for about six months after Sept. 11. But I think to myself when I’m up there, if I have to die, what better reason to die than speaking out for something you believe in? I think what I’m doing is the essence of being an American: Taking a stand I realize is not popular and speaking reasonably about it.
What’s the hardest question you’ve had to ask yourself this past year?
“Why am I doing this?” I was on a talk show once where a real right-winger was speaking. And afterwards when I complained to the host about not having time to respond she got really angry with me. “I gave you an hour for your agenda. You’re a peace activist from way back and your brother gets killed and you’re riding it for all it’s worth.” And I had to think about that. To some extent, I am using this. It’s a platform for who I am. I’ve had to ask myself, “Is it all ego?” But the thing it’s come out of is just so horrible … I think about my brother every day. I still have nightmares about the plane going into the building. It’s like a big pool of grief that you sneak up to and dip your toe in and say, “Ohhhh. That really hurts. I don’t want to go there.”
What’s been the best thing about doing this work?
That I have all these new friends all over the world. I have people who write to me from all over the world. I realize I’m not alone. You know, Jim was my oldest brother and I always got to learn from his mistakes. And now, I feel like I’m learning from him again. I’m lucky. I’m alive and I get to go out and do this.
How have you changed in the past year?
I’m much more tolerant of other opinions. I’m much more confident. I can stand up and address thousands of people. It’s like an out of body experience. You get wrapped up in that bigger thing. And it changes what you can do.