The Peaceful Response to 9/11

David Potorti lost his brother, Jim, in the attack on the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But instead of seeking revenge or retreating into his pain, Potorti, perhaps surprisingly, did the opposite. He reached out to the nation and world community in search of hope and peace, and channeled his grief into helping fellow grievers express similar feelings, by telling their stories and writing about their experiences.

"I want people to know that joy can come out of sadness. That living in these horrible times, there can be joy found by remembering our human connections. When we do that, we stop being afraid. People that don't remember those connections are the ones who are still afraid," explained Potorti.

Far below the radar of the national media, contrary to what most of us expect, there are gentle but persistent voices who are telling a very different story about the effects of the tragedy of 9/11. An extraordinary group of people are telling their stories, all who lost loved ones in the attack, who took that stunning blow and turned it into a call to action toward a better future and away from the escalating violence that has dominated our world since that fateful day.

Slowly but very steadily, an extraordinary thread of human response has emerged from survivors of 9/11 victims. It has grown into a movement against war and the desire to turn the horrible violence of that day on its head, and work for a better day and a more peaceful world.

During the days and weeks following 9/11, the movement took flight as the families of victims began to speak out against the militaristic retribution that many were calling for in the streets and within the Bush administration. Through emails that became widely circulated and published on Web sites, letters to the editors of local and national news publications and appearances on talk radio and television news programs, these people slowly found one another.

On November 25, 2001, the Walk for Healing and Peace commenced with a group of peace-oriented family members who lost loved ones on 9/11. Beginning at Georgetown University in D.C., the group traveled over the next eight days to New York City. By mid-December, this group (after much discussion and debate) had chosen a name that best represented their feelings: September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.

Over the next two years, Peaceful Tomorrows participated in hundreds of peace actions, political events, news articles and shows, and traveled to both post-US-bombing Afghanistan and pre-US-bombing Iraq. The stories of their actions, personal notes from the family members themselves, and emails from both supporters and dissenters have been collected by David Potorti in the book, "September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Our Grief into Action for Peace," being published by RDV Books/Akashic Books on the two-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

This is the book to read in a time when we are forced into the dichotomy of "if you're not with us, you're with the terrorists." I found myself moved to tears by the sheer strength of these people to seek out reason and justice for their loss. Here were not the train-wreck stories of grief that have been cycled over and over by the mainstream media, but instead, I found stories like that of 72-year-old Rita Lasar, who made a peace-mission trip to war-torn Afghanistan in the name of her brother, Abe Zelmanowitz. . "I want people to know that it's safe to look for alternatives to war," she said. "I want to be a flashlight, a beacon for people out there." Participants in Peaceful Tomorrows, in contrast to the Bush administration's militaristic escalation and the abandonment of diplomacy, simply reached out to each other, and to the world with the hope of engaging in people-to-people diplomacy.

In honor of Peaceful Tomorrow members and to mark the book's publication, many gathered in the Puffin Room in SoHo in New York City on Sept. 8 to hear seven members tell their stories of loss and how they came to be involved in the group. Amy Goodman of public radio's Democracy Now! opened the event with Margaret Meade's famous call to action: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." She added: "If there were ever a group that embodied the spirit of this statement," she said, "it would be these people sitting here, and the people they represent."

The seven gut-wrenching stories of loss were also stories of outreach, human connection and a concerted resolution to break the cycle of violence. In these seven distinct stories, we find a group of people who do not necessarily think alike, but who had agreed that discourse about war and violence, both public and private, are absolutely vital to our survival not only as a nation, but as members of the international community: Our relationships with one another -- our friends, our co-workers, our families, and strangers -- are critical to our existence in the current climate of fear and paranoia.

Megan Bartlett, an emergency medical technician, shared stories of her co-workers who are afraid to speak out, and the tremendous responsibility that emergency workers have been given in order to prevent another such tragedy. One of her fellow workers told her: "There's something very wrong with the world when we're not afraid to run into a burning building, but I'm afraid to tell my co-workers that I want peace."

Film and television producer Robert Greenwald and music executive Danny Goldberg are publishing the book in conjunction with Johnny Temple's Akashic Press. Greenwald thought it essential to expand the audience for the messages and experiences of the group's members. "These wonderful, committed people have the unsought-after authority to provide the inspiration and guidance on how to behave and organize." These are the characteristics necessary to bring about change in 2004.

For that change to happen, it seems Americans must address the culture of fear that still envelopes us. According to the panelists we are witness to the germs of a new culture of hope -- an entirely new peace movement had developed, culminating in world-wide protests that had never been achieved before. Story-telling, like the experiences presented in the book, is integral in building hope for Kelly Campbell, one of the co-founders of Peaceful Tomorrows. Sharing stories from survivors and family members of victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, allowed her to move forward and to become a leader.

Audience members gave "testimony" as many people began sharing the stories of inspiration they had received from Peaceful Tomorrows. Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org spoke of his own uncertainty. It was, in part, the "heart and confidence" of Peaceful Tomorrows that moved him to action and drove him to organize hundreds of thousands of activists and eventually integrate his site with MoveOn.org.

Political activist and actress Janeane Garofalo had a different take on "culture of fear." "This is no longer a culture of fear anymore. This is a culture of misinformation. The people supplying that misinformation, they all know that it's wrong. It's time to create a culture of intelligence, which can only begin with education. There can't be hope without education."

If education is the antidote, then the challenge ahead is enormous. We see violence increasing in the Middle East, and continuing everyday in Iraq, while George Bush uses the anniversary of 9/11 to propose even more draconian laws with the repugnant Patriot II legislation. Nevertheless, while the extremists become more extreme, those of us with a far different worldview need to realize our strength. More and more people are insisting on an entirely different vision for the future. As long-time peace activist Cora Weiss insists: "The time has come to put an end to war. For centuries people supported the institutions of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. These terrible things are now history. Why not war?"

Peaceful Tomorrows is inspiration. And a reminder that when my personal activism becomes disheartening, if not downright disillusioning, I have this wonderful group and their moving book to show me the way.

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